Thursday, November 16, 2006

Proposed closure of Bond Road early years unit

Cllr Maxi Martin has passed on to me the issue of the Early Years Unit in Bond Road which will be discussed tonight at Merton Council's Life Chances(covers education, children services etc) and is the one of the proposed savings of the minority Tory administration in Merton. The argument about why it should stay open is below but it quite clear vulnerable children will suffer most and their reason for closing the Early Years Unit do not stack up to scrutiny.

The Early Years Unit in Bond Rd. is part of Merton's response to criticism by Inspectors in 2002 that Children's Services in Merton were not providing targeted early preventive services for the most vulnerable children - those at risk and most in need of specialist support and their parents. One of the recommendations was that the unit should provide day care for those children whose needs could not be met in mainstream provision. The unit is staffed by highly qualified and trained social care workers and is a cornerstone of Merton's Family Support Service which is aiming to prevent children from coming into care. The service has played a major role in reducing the number of LAC in Merton and contributed to the national recognition of Merton as a model of family support and intervention.

Children attending the unit are from some of the most disadvantaged and deprived families in the borough. Their parents are often those least able to speak up for themselves because of the multitude of complex and enmeshed problems they face in their everyday lives. These are some of the most socially excluded families in the borough and form part of the cohort of families under the age of 10 which the government consider require the earliest intervention, including targeted services and support to develop parenting skills to prevent their children becoming offenders.

These families are by definition hard to reach and take a lot of time and effort to engage. This high quality intensive and flexible service cannot be replicated by any other service in the borough and therefore the children who would previously have been referred to Bond Rd will be left even more vulnerable and at risk if they and their families are unable to access this unit.

One of the arguments put forward to support the closure of the Early Years Unit is that in the future the complex needs of children will be met in Children's Centres. Currently the children and families who access service from Bond Rd. are not those likely to use Children's Centres. Children's Centres in Merton are a long way from being up and running. The first 4 (of the proposed 8) are scheduled to open in April 2008 - six months after the proposed closure and cessation of service at Bond Rd. It is still unclear as to what shape the family support service within these centres will take. If the model is to be based on the Lavender Children's Centre then the only capacity the centres will have will be in dealing with children in levels 1 & 2 of the Child Concern Model. Children accessing Bond Rd. are assessed as requiring levels 4 & 5 on this model.

Not only will the needs of these children not be met in mainstream children's centres, the budget proposals suggest that only 9-10 part-time replacement places in mainstream children’s centres will be provided – this is significant reduction in the current 24 full-time places offered at the Bond Road nursery. Both the reduction in places and the reduction in service levels clearly demonstrate that this budget proposal is not in fact a re-provisioning – it is a cut in services both in terms of level and extent, and a cut for the most vulnerable children and families in Merton.

Financial concerns are of course a key argument for ceasing the Bond Road provision. However, a full-time place at the unit costs the council £238 per week, which is comparable to the cost of a private nursery place whilst offering a far superior service. Whilst the cost of a full-time place at Lavender Children’s Centre is £185 per week, the cost saving per week per child is surely outweighed by the significantly reduced care that will be offered to these children who have very specialised support needs. What little saving will be made will be at the cost of children's safety and will be paid for many times over in the future costs of having to offer more expensive and reactive family support measures.

Government is asking local authorities, in the context of the Every Child Matters Agenda, to develop a strategic and joined up approach to the design and delivery of parenting support services and they see support for parents as a continuum starting with early intervention and prevention services. The Early Years Unit at Bond Rd. is part of that continuum in Merton. Its loss will have a detrimental effect on vulnerable children and families in Merton and will result in increased social and financial costs to the council in future years.


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