The advantages of children’s centres – supporting vulnerable families

Children’s centres ‘improve parenting skills of most disadvantaged families’

(as published 17th December 2015)

An Oxford University study says children’s centres across England have successfully reached out to support vulnerable families in disadvantaged communities, especially in supporting parenting skills and confidence. Organised activities, such as ‘Stay and Play’ sessions where parents and their children played and learned songs, were linked to small but significant reductions in parenting stress, improvements in mothers’ health, and better learning environments in the children’s own homes.

Children’s centres operate in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to provide a wide range of services tailored to local conditions and needs, but they are also intended to target the most vulnerable families. The Oxford study shows children’s centres with the best funding and staffing levels did reach families in ‘most need’ – the poorest households and families with dysfunctional parent-child relationships.

Centres appeared to be less effective at supporting unemployed parents into work and improving children’s health. The report shows that overall there were better outcomes for parents and families than for children as most centres do not provide childcare directly (in keeping with the government’s Department for Education guidance). Nonetheless, children who went to school-led centres did better at learning complex vocabulary; while those at centres supported by partner agencies increased their reasoning skills. The research also links improvements in children’s development (cognitive and social skills) with family use of childcare services, saying local childcare was signposted and promoted to disadvantaged families using children’s centres.

Children’s centres with the best funding and staffing levels linked with improvements in the lives of families in ‘most need’

The research points out that across the period studied, the better funded children’s centres were more successful both in boosting the social skills of children and improving family functioning compared with centres where staffing levels or services were reduced. These effects though relatively small were significant and positive, and greatest for families with higher levels of financial disadvantage. The research suggests greater stability in terms of how the centres are staffed and run may play a part. It says better resourced centres also appeared to attract more of the most disadvantaged families in the locality.

Researchers studied the finances and staffing of centres from 2011 to 2012 to measure the impact of resourcing. The report warns, however, that since 2012 other evidence nationally shows that further budget cuts have led to reduced services and staffing, with reorganisations and closures of children’s centres affecting services in many local authority areas.

The research is based on interviews by NatCen Social Research with more than 2,600 parents and 300 staff from more than 117 children’s centres across England. Parents were interviewed three times – from when their child was aged one to three years old. The team analysed the benefits of the centres on outcomes for mothers and children separately, as well as families overall.

Researchers found that the most disadvantaged families went to children’s centres for an average of around five months longer than less disadvantaged families, and for a total of 38 more hours in total. The most disadvantaged families were also the least likely to use other services outside children’s centres. Although children’s centres were also intended to support the most vulnerable families, staff were often concerned that they did not necessarily have the training and experience to support those with complex needs, including mental health problems.

Principal investigator Professor Pam Sammons from Oxford’s Department of Education, said: ‘Our findings show that children’s centres make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged families across England. We find that targeting extra services towards disadvantaged families in disadvantaged neighbourhoods promotes better parenting, health and social skills. Children’s centres support parents and families, helping to mitigate the powerful effects of disadvantage on life chances. It is important to build on these findings to ensure that such benefits are not lost.’

Co-investigator Professor Kathy Sylva, also from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, added: ‘Earlier research from the same study showed how popular centres are amongst residents in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Staff told us that the open-access, walk-in activities encouraged vulnerable families to take part because they did not feel there was a stigma attached to using the centres. Preventative work with families can head off more serious problems that could otherwise put them on the lists of social welfare agencies.’

Dr Emily Tanner, consortium lead from NatCen Social Research, said, ‘This report marks an important milestone in the six-year evaluation, providing insights that can help improve services for parents and children. It builds on earlier findings from the evaluation that can be found on the NatCen website.’

For more information, contact the University of Oxford at or Tel: +44(0)1865 280534

Notes for Editors

*The report, ‘The Impact of Children’s Centres: Studying the Effects of Children’s Centres in Promoting Better Outcomes for Young Children and Their Families’, and its Research Brief, are being published by the UK Government’s Department of Education (DfE) on 17 December 2015.

*The ECCE Impact Report is led by Professor Pam Sammons, with James Hall, Rebecca Smees, Jenny Goff, Kathy Sylva, Maria Evangelou and Naomi Eisenstadt of the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, and Teresa Smith and George Smith of the University of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention. Pam Sammons and Kathy Sylva are principal investigators on the DfE-funded longitudinal Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE 2009-2015). See

This report is one in a series of reports from a six-year study, the Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE), commissioned in 2009 by the government’s Department for Education to provide an in-depth understanding of the effects of different approaches in the management and delivery of children’s centre services between 2009 and 2015. The project is run in collaboration with NatCen Social Research and Frontier Economics.

*There have been a number of reports by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education relating to the Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England.

*Oxford’s Department of Education and Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention were both ranked first in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (the REF). See and

*NatCen Social Research provided the interviewing expertise for the surveys in the children’s centres. It is a leading centre for independent social research. See

Further Information about the research methods

The underlying rationale for the introduction of children’s centres was to support all children and families living in particular disadvantaged areas by providing a wide range of services tailored to local conditions and needs. In addition, children’s centres were intended to target provision to support the most vulnerable families with the greatest needs.

The Impact analyses looked at whether children’s centres engage and improve child, mother & family outcomes. It examined what aspects of children’s centres (management structure, working practices, services offered, and services used) promote better family, parent, and child outcomes.

This report studies the impact of children’s centres on changes in outcomes for a large sample of young children and their families. These outcomes (family, mother and child) were chosen to reflect the aims of children’s centres which were intended to support parents and families and in the longer term provide young children with a better start to school. Thirteen outcomes were measured through a longitudinal survey that recruited a sample of user families registered at a named children’s centre with a child aged 9-18 months (mean age 14 months) and followed up to age 3 plus (mean age 38 months). The Impact analyses are based on a sample of 2,608 user families registered at 117 Children’s Centres serving disadvantaged neighbourhoods in England.

Families were surveyed face to face and by telephone on three occasions across the longitudinal study (2012 to 2014) to collect information about their use of children’s centres, family background details and various outcome measures (described below).

Six measures of child outcomes were studied: children’s internalising behaviours, externalising behaviours, pro-social skills, cognitive attainment, both language (naming vocabulary) and non-verbal reasoning (picture similarities), and one of health (whether or not a child was in poor health). For mother outcomes, two measures were collected: one focusing specifically on mental health, and the other on a more general measure of the mother’s health status (better or poorer). For family functioning, six outcome measures were obtained. Household Economic Status (HES) identified workless household status (whether no parent in the household was working). The Confusion, Hubbub, And Order within the home Scale (CHAOS) provided an indicator of the structure of the home environment, while the early years home learning environment (early HLE) measured the frequency of activities in the home that support learning at child age 3 years plus. In addition, two measures of parenting were collected; Parental Distress and Parent-Child Dysfunctional Interaction.

In addition several field work visits were made to each of over 120 children’s centres to collect detailed information about their organisation and functioning, including parenting services, resourcing and leadership during the period 2012 to 2013.


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