Guide to children’s centres

Sure Start centres offer advice and support for both parents and children

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What is a children’s centre

Children’s centres, or you may know them as ‘Sure Start centres’, are places that offer support and advice to parents and carers of children up to the age of five. Their aim is to be a ‘one stop shop’ that brings a range of services together that you and your little one might need. They were initially set up to help needy families and disadvantaged children get a better start in education and their target was that it should be easily accessible for everyone.

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Who can go to a children’s centre?

Anyone who has a child or is a carer of a child can use a children’s centre. You can start going from the time you find out you’re pregnant right until your little one starts primary school at the age of five. The centres offer a wide range of activities for both adults and children.

How many children’s centres are there?

Currently there are 3,600 centres across the UK with often more than one in a town. For example in Milton Keynes there’s a choice of 20 centres.

I’ve heard lots of children’s centres may soon be closed due to funding cuts. What’s the story?

Despite Government ministers insisting that adequate resources have been provided to protect Sure Start centres, for a lot of local authorities this isn’t the case. It is estimated that 250 children’s centres will have to close over the next 12 months; 2000 will provide a reduced service; 3100 will have a lower budget and staff at 1000 centres have been issued with “at risk of redundancy” notices. However, many mums and dads are putting up a fight and the importance of these centres is recognised by the government.

What happens at a children’s centre?

Firstly the centres are a place where you can go and meet up with other mums and dads, have a chat and a coffee.
However they also have a number of services that they offer and all children’s centres have to deliver four key ones. These are:

•    child and family health services
•    advice on parenting
•    childcare options
•    specialist services

A lot of centres offer good value childcare and early learning services and can help mums by offering training courses or advice on getting back to work.

Many also offer classes and activities for both adults and children. My local centre offers breastfeeding advice for new mums, ‘push and tone’ classes where parents keep fit whilst pushing their buggies around the park and lots of inside and outside play sessions for the little ones.

All centres offer different activities so if your local one doesn’t do something you’d like to do take a look at a different centre in your neighbourhood or local area.

Can you leave your child at a children’s centre?

Not all children’s centres offer childcare facilities where you can leave your child but they all have to have onsite activities for children. For those centres that don’t offer childcare you must stay with your child at all times. Just contact your local centre to see if they offer onsite childcare – see our list of your nearest children’s centres.

Do children’s centre have to be registered with Ofsted?

Yes. Children’s centres are registered with Ofsted and they are inspected every five years. Find out what to look for in an Ofsted report.

How much do children’s centre cost?

A lot of the sessions run at the children’s centres are free. If there is a particular course being run by a tutor, such as baby massage, there may be a small charge but this will always be clearly stated on the centre’s activity calendar. As you’ll most probably have a coffee and a chat whilst you’re there, the centres always welcome a donation to cover refreshments.

Can you claim childcare tax credits when you use a children’s centre?

Yes. If you are eligible for tax credits you can claim them to use at a children’s centre.

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Can I use the 15 hours free nursery entitlement for 3-4 year olds with a children’s centre?

If your local children’s centre is an ‘early years provider’ then yes, you can use the 15 hours free entitlement. You can double check with your local Family Information Service (FIS) if the centre is registered to offer the entitlement. You can get your local FIS number by calling 08002 346 346.

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