The announcement by Sheffield City Council of £3.6 million cuts to services for young children has been met by a chorus of protest.
On Saturday demonstrators plan to march through Sheffield city centre ahead of two council meetings next week. Julia Armstrong spoke to one of the leaders of the campaign and parents of young children about what the cuts will mean to them.
FOR Sally Pearse, the shock of hearing that £3.6m was going to be cut from Sheffield’s early years children’s service budget was quickly followed by anger at what it would mean to families in the poorest areas.
Sally, who is the project manager of Tinsley Parents and Children’s Consortium which runs the Tinsley Green Children’s Centre Nursery, said: “We knew that the council had received overall cuts from central government. “We expected there to be some decrease in spending and we were planning with our trustees to maximise our services to the community.
“It was absolutely out of the blue in a public meeting that we found out that all the funding would be cut.”
Sally and other children’s centre staff and parents quickly decided that they had to run a campaign to oppose the cuts, which will mean that the 36 areas that now have their own children’s centre will be cut to 17 as the areas are expanded.
Protest meetings and events were called and a petition was set up with the aim of collecting 5,000 names to force a debate by Sheffield City Council. Sally said that people have queued up to sign at a stall run every day by volunteers outside the town hall. “It’s the first time there’s cuts they can see. It’s really going to hit the most vulnerable.”
She added: “I think it’s insulting to people’s intelligence to say that by removing funding we will get better services.
“I also think the current consultation with service users is disgraceful. It doesn’t describe what will be lost, just what will be left.
“Whatever response they get in favour they should balance that with the number of people who have signed our petition to say they don’t agree. It’s 6,000 and counting.”
She said that some parents had looked at the consultation documents and saw that they referred to improving quality, when there will no longer be a budget to cover the cost of staff training.
She added: “We will have to pay for it when we’ve had our budget slashed.
“What Sheffield should be proud of is the number of outstanding settings in areas where the most vulnerable children live and the importance of that in giving them a good start in life. It’s undermining all that work.”
She said a vital part of that work now under threat was child protection, including giving the best support for families, which is now available to them in the children’s centres in their own neighbourhoods through people they come into contact with every day.
She worries that child protection problems will increase as a result.
She continued: “Children with disabilities at the moment have access to nurseries in their own communities. One of the big issues in this area was very young children not being picked up on and also children not attending appointments for various reasons including distance to travel and language difficulties. We teach a lot of children with complex special needs.
“They will not be cared for in their own area and there are no spaces for them in the specialist nurseries. That will be costly, so in terms of saving money it doesn’t make sense.
“These services need to be provided in local communities. The council talks about propping up childcare businesses but this is misleading. The services we provide are what the community needs. The subsidy covers over 800 places, most of them in areas of deprivation.”
She pointed out that the nurseries allow parents to go to work, training or classes to learn English, something many will not be able to afford if free places are no longer available for their children.
Sally said that the Tinsley Green centre was only set up due to the determination of local people, who raised more than £2 million to build it. Last year it was judged by Ofsted as outstanding in all areas.
It has become a beacon for good practice and staff have been invited to speak at national events looking at how to achieve excellence. Ironically, a council inspection that came to the same view took place just days after the cuts announcement was made. Sally said that the inspection team were very apologetic over the timing.
She points out that it is not just Tinsley – several of the children’s centres facing an uncertain future have won excellent Ofsted inspection reports. She fears all that excellence is now under threat.
Campaigners are urging people to come on Saturday’s demonstration, which starts at 11am at Devonshire Green, and sign the petition, which they plan to present on February 6, and to make their views known to councillors and MPs.
Parents can fill in a questionnaire on the Sheffield City Council website, although Sally said she felt it was hard for people to actually express opposition in the questionnaire.