Children's centres in Gateshead could close as council leaders propose to cut their budget by half to save £1m.
The Journal reported yesterday how just 45% of children in Gateshead reached expected literacy levels set in the Early Years Foundation Stage, compared to 61% nationally and 55% in the North East.
And campaigners against the plans believe they could further disadvantage the borough’s most vulnerable children and have launched a petition to save the centres, which they say provide a lifeline to parents of the under fives.
Faced with financial pressures the council’s proposal is to reduce Children’s Centre delivery by £1.167m - a 51% reduction in the service.
There are currently 12 centres and it is proposed there is a reduction of staff and with services withdrawn or provided by alternative means.
The core purpose of Children’s Centres, says the council, is to improve outcomes for young children and their families and reduce inequalities between families in greatest need and their peers.
An impact assessment prepared by officers said: “Failure to support families at the earliest point of engagement may have a detrimental effect on other service budgets in the future due to a likely reduction in early intervention and prevention services.”
Gateshead mum and surestart volunteer Sarah Muller, a former bank cashier, has launched a petition against the plans.
Sarah, who lives in High Spen with husband Jason and 18 month old son Joseph said: “I have not much money left over each month to attend paid activities and toddler groups and because of this I very much rely on Sure Start on a near daily basis.
“I first attended Sure Start two weeks after my baby was born as I was having horrendous problems breast feeding. It was terribly painful and I was very low indeed. Sure Start opened the door to a wonderful support group which helped me breastfeed until 17 months.
“Since then I have attended many groups within Sure Start which have resulted in good friendships and gained great tips.
“They have also entertained and developed my wee boy; It’s fantastic seeing him enjoy things that I could never provide at home and I have often thanked my lucky stars that I was introduced to the centre.
“I know the council has to make difficult decisions but I think we need to put kids first.
“They not only support mums with post natal depression or breastfeeding problems but provide activities like messy play for children which helps with their development.”
The petition has so far attracted 200 signatures, but Sarah is hoping to reach at least 2,000.
Research by Charity 4Children found nationally over a million families are using their local Children’s Centre, including two-thirds of disadvantaged families with at least one child under five.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children said: “Local authorities are under extreme financial pressure to make tough decisions, but the long term social and financial rewards will come with filling up, not closing down these crucial centres, which have already provided a cost-effective lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families.”
Margaret Whellans, Strategic Director of Learning and Children, said: “It is important to stress that there has been no decision to close any children centres in Gateshead.
“However, we have tough financial challenges to meet. With decreasing government funding and increasing spending costs, Gateshead Council has an estimated funding gap of £45m for its budget over the next two years.
“We are therefore consulting with the public until December 17 on these and other choices and no decisions will be made until our budget is agreed at the end of February.”