Children’s centres cuts blow

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THIRTY Sheffield children’s centres and nurseries are to lose £2 million of council funding - which could force them to charge more or slash their opening hours.

The changes, to be introduced from April, will see more parents having to pay market rates for childcare as direct subsidies to providers are withdrawn.

The cash removed from the centres and nurseries will instead be targeted at the city’s neediest youngsters.

Councillors expect the city to receive significantly less funding for the city’s 39,000 under-fives under a new Government grant system, which is replacing Labour’s SureStart programme - but the scale of the cuts is as yet unclear.

But they admit some children’s centres could face financial problems if they don’t re-organise their operations - with higher charges and shorter opening hours both possible options.

The funding changes will be phased in over a 12 month period to help providers adapt to the new system, with cash withdrawn from October this year onwards.

Council officers will instead work to identify children and families most in need, liaising with them directly.

“We will have significantly less money than we previously had so we have to ensure we are putting it to the best possible use, supporting the most disadvantaged families,” said Coun Colin Ross, Cabinet member for children’s services.

“The aim will be to provide services of really high quality as a complete package. Providers at the moment, on average, receive grants of £70,000 but some centres are under-used.

“Tough economic times can give new opportunities to review how services are provided and to question if they are being provided in the most efficient way.

“It is about getting better value for money. Our funding needs to be redirected so those most in need are benefiting directly.”

Coun Ross said the squeeze would be partly offset by extra cash being made available for 15 hours a week of free education for disadvantaged two-year-olds - although on the other hand more four-year-olds would be starting school earlier.

“Centres will have to charge market rates for their services if their parents can afford them. But an important thing to stress is that council-run nurseries are to be treated in exactly the same way as those in the private sector - there will be complete equality,” he added.

Officers are to meet nursery managers tomorrow at the Sheffield United ground to discuss the proposals, continuing discussions on options which began in the autumn.