The children and families minister, Nadhim Zahawi, appears to have shelved the long-anticipated Government consultation into the future of children’s centres.

The consultation was originally announced over 3 years ago by the then children’s minister, Sam Gymiah. Former childcare minister Caroline Dinenage implied last year that the consultation was still likely to go ahead.

Conversely, in a recent letter to the Science and Technology Committee, the current children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi and MP Jackie Doyle-Price have suggested that there are no plans at present to run the consultation. The letter implies that attention will be focused on implementing the Government’s social mobility action plan instead.

The Early Years Social Mobility Peer Review Programme, which was launched in April, was also mentioned in the letter as a means of spreading best practice in the early years sector.

Nadhim Zahawi and Jackie Doyle-Price state in their joint letter that the Government’s social mobility action plan will be aimed at improving early years provision in deprived areas.

The Committee questioned when the Government intends to launch the children’s centre consultation, to which they responded, ‘The Social Mobility Action Plan sets a clear direction for all those who have a part to play, including those responsible for children’s centres services. Our focus is now on delivering against this and improving outcomes at age five for our most disadvantaged children.

‘We need to learn more about how local authorities use their children’s centres to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, and the recent Sutton Trust report has been helpful in informing this.

‘The Early Years Social Mobility Peer Review Programme was announced on 30 April 2018. We are partnering with the Local Government Association (LGA) to design and deliver the programme, building on existing peer review models such as the Corporate Peer Challenge Programme. The programme will be piloted over the summer, with the full programme rolling out from autumn 2018.

‘Through the peer reviews and additional support the programme will spread best practice and help councils looking to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. This will inform the next steps in our strategy to close the development gap, including considering any future consultation on the role of children’s centres.’

The news that the consultation on the future of children’s centres has been dropped was described by the Pre-School Learning Alliance as ‘incredibly disappointing’.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, “I doubt many in the early years sector will be surprised by today’s announcement. Nevertheless, it is incredibly disappointing that, in the time it has taken ministers to decide not to hold a consultation on the future of children’s centres, dozens of these vital services have gone without inspection and hundreds of them have closed.

“Successive ministers have talked about the importance of social mobility – but such rhetoric is hard to justify as more and more families go without the support children’s centres provide. If the Government truly wants to support disadvantaged and vulnerable families, it must urgently ensure children’s centres are adequately supported.

“This is no longer purely a matter of funding, but also a much clearer policy on the future of children’s centres in terms of what they are meant to achieve for the communities they serve.”

MP Tracy Brabin, shadow early years minister, said, “The apparent side-lining of this long awaited consultation is very disappointing, particularly when considering its important remit to look at the future role of children’s centres.

“It is pretty shameful that Tory ministers have attempted to quietly shelve this important work without even providing a clear explanation why.

“Considering the rapid decline of Sure Start and children’s centres from our communities, I suspect any independent consultation would make for difficult reading for the Government.”

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