Last Saturday, 500 protesters marched across Oxford city centre place to fight against proposed reforms to children’s services across Oxfordshire. The potential changes notably include the closure of all children’s centres through cuts in funding to the Oxfordshire County Council’s Early Intervention budget.
The proposals would close all 44 childcare centres in Oxford to achieve a £8 million saving by the 2016-17 budget. Despite the extensive cuts to children’s services planned, the council would still be obliged to provide some services by law, such as services to children on child protection plans.
Although Oxford University students with children are currently able to use nurseries at Balliol, Wolfson, Somerville and St Anne’s Colleges, access across other colleges is limited. However since these nursery services are distinct from the children’s services currently offered by the council, even student parents at these childfriendly colleges would likely be affected by the proposed changes.
Replacing the existing centres would be eight ‘Children and Family’ centres, which the council claims would “support children and their families who need help and will integrate the work of the Children’s Centres, the Early Intervention Hubs and Children’s Social Care”. Many of Saturday’s demonstrators have been vocally critical of this measure, protesting that these new centres would be available by referral only. The current children’s services provide universal access.
The ‘Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres’ campaign, “a concerned group of parents with young children, child minders, grandparents and the general public”, has also emerged to condemn the proposals. In a recent statement, the campaign raised concerns about the ambiguity of any departure from the current system, stating, “there is no information on who will be able to access the services if any of the three proposals is implemented”.
Tamsin Browning, a childcare service user and campaigner, highlighted the plight of parents who move to Oxford for work and careers. “Lots of people who move here for work only have networks relating their jobs. After having a child, this means people can become very isolated and at higher risk of post-natal depression.”
Browning also raised broader concerns about the implication of proposals, telling Cherwell, “I don’t think the government really understands the pressure they’re putting the council under by cutting services like old people’s homes or subsidised bus routes – these are really important services. I think it will lead to so much more need in the future. I want to live in a society that looks after the most needy. The children’s centres were a lifeline to me and are one of the few places you can go to with a community. That’s the kind of world I want my son to grow up in, where people care for each other through these centres.
Another childcare service user, Jah Huish, highlighted the particular issue of accessibility in Oxfordshire, with its mix between urban and rural. “We want to see all 44 services open. You are supposed to be able to walk to your children’s centre.”
Huish went on to suggest what the longer term effect of the cuts could be. “By the time my daughter gets to primary school children will be so bogged down which should have been caught by child services. There will be less time to actually teach. It will also create a huge strain on nurseries which will have to provide 30 hours of care per child.”
Oxford University research on children’s centres was recently published in a report on child services entitled ‘Organisation, services and reach of children’s centres’, concluding that children’s centres are an effective means of reaching vulnerable children.