Getting our Childrens’ Centres right

As readers of our local Focus Newsletter in Church Ward will know we were absolutely delighted that the council did a U turn and decided not to close 6 Children’s Centres but to save money by adopting a hub and spoke management system and by looking for extra income, especially from the health service.

I have had the opportunity now to look at what our officers are doing and recommending and I strongly believe that it is all good stuff and indeed that what comes out will be better than the previous set up.

A bit of a history lesson is required here! In 2009 the then Labour Government worked with the Local Government Association to look a series of Total Place reviews. These reviews looked at the way services were delivered and whether they really met the needs of the individuals who received services. In every single case the reviews found that there were too many organisations, chasing money in competition with each other and trying to promote the needs of that organisation as ‘the answer’ to the problem rather than part of a team solution.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the field of children’s services. We can all remember the harrowing experiences of baby Peter where 14 sets of professionals failed to work together to safeguard that child’s life. Baby Peter is an extreme example but for every child that dies there are hundreds who are failed by the system. The Government recognised this in the autumn of 2010 when it established a work stream relating to ‘families with complex needs’. They believe that there are 120,000 such families where parents have never worked, where there is no ambition to work, where criminality is rampant and children are at best ignored and worst abused.

Some of those families cost the state up to £300,000 a year because of the interventions required. But the worst thing about this is that the interventions usually don’t work. Whole families have slipped into a way of life that is different from the rest of us. We know who we will be working with in 20 years time because they will be the children of those we are working with now.

Shamefully Liverpool was not one of the 40+ councils that decided to join with the government in attending to those needs; to that failure to join up. However, this reorganisation of children’s centres gives Liverpool the chance to play catch up. It is inside the communities before children arrive at school proper that the best interventions can be made in the whole family life which alone can change those families. It is of little value trying to change the child if no attempt is made to change the family. How many more times must I hear teachers despairing because they have done their best but the child goes home to a place which is not caring or even hostile to education?

Our officers are working hard on an approach which will cement in ante and post natal activity. Health must be the biggest partner to education in dealing with these hard to reach families. However why not also bring into the ‘safe’ environment of the children’s centre services which relate to benefits, employment, training and a range of activities which will help apparent to become better parents and create stronger families.

As an old bloke who has helped bring up 3 children (now well well grown up – my baby is 28!) and now a grandpa I am acutely aware that the most important job we ever have in life, to bring up our children, is one that we provide no training and little support for. I was brought up in a loving home. I helped Mum bake the cakes, dad took my sister and I out in the evenings in summer so I sort of knew what to do. Even then you don’t know what it’s like until you do it. But what if you didn’t come from a house like mine? What if your parents didn’t care? What if no-one taught you the marvellous place of love and strength that a family can be? Your role model is likely to be a bad one and you are likely to replicate your own past in your children’s future.

Our Children’s Centres will not only come out of these changes stronger than they were before but will act as a beacon to other council and public sector services. Real care and real solutions will come out of joining up our services around the needs of the individual inside communities that know and can support them that is what Total Place was all about. It was right in 2009 and it’s even more right now in 2012 as we struggle with reduced budgets and increased problems.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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