Protests fail to halt city childcare reorganisation

Protest outside Sheffield Town Hall against children's centre closures
Protest outside Sheffield Town Hall against children's centre closures

A PROPOSED shake-up of Sheffield’s community childcare services is set to go ahead, despite widespread condemnation.

Withdrawal of subsidies to 20 city nurseries and reorganisation of 36 children’s centres into 17 hubs, putting 50 jobs at risk, had provoked a storm of opposition from parents and providers.

And more than 10,000 people signed a petition opposing the changes.

But this week council leaders claimed the impact of cuts had been “greatly exaggerated” and that families would not be left without childcare.

“It is clear that the vast majority of parents currently accessing childcare from the community nurseries will continue to have sufficient provision to meet their needs,” said senior manager Julie Ward.

The Early Years Review began 18 months ago, but Government demands for £50m in savings ramped up the pace of change.

Funding of £6.8m was cut from the Early Intervention Grant including £3.5m from Early Years provision – requiring major restructuring of the service.

A strategy was accepted in principle last year and consultations followed, triggering heavy criticism of the Labour-led authority.

The draft plan has now been revised and will go before councillors next week.

It proposes to retain 17 Ofsted-registered children’s centres and to redesignate the rest as outreach sites. All current activities will continue, though some may move to neighbouring centres.

Savings will be made by cutting back on management, premises and administration costs – such as renting venues for one day a week instead of paying thousands to ‘block purchase’ full time.

Fifty council jobs could be put at risk, but it is hoped that most staff involved will be redeployed or retrained.

Council-funded subsidies will be withdrawn from 20 of the city’s 200 private or community nurseries at the end of March. But the authority will bring forward new Government funding to April, to help plug the gap.

It will also work with providers to develop business plans and become self-supporting. But some will have to change to survive.

“We’ve had to examine our management structures and premises costs and some of these providers will have to do the same,” said Coun Jackie Drayton, cabinet member for children’s services. “Some may not be sustainable.”

If necessary, the council will step in to protect services until a new provider can be found. And a new crisis fund will ensure vulnerable children do not suffer.

Sheffield Community Childcare Forum, which has led opposition to the plan, said it was “extremely disappointed” with revisions and questioned legitimacy of the consultation.

“We find it extremely concerning that the views of parents and providers have not been taken into account and the council is still steamrolling ahead,” said a spokeswoman. “We already have a pending legal challenge and more parents are signing up to take legal action as they see this as the only way forward.”