Acol is the wrong children’s centre to close

Today Camden published papers for next Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, including one on the future of the early years service.  This confirmed that, as part of the savings to early years, the council was proposing the closure of Acol Children’s Centre on Acol Road, NW6 (just off West End Lane).  I think this is the wrong choice for local people.

I’ve already tweeted, written letters to, and been quoted in the local press about my views on this, but I thought I’d use this blog to set out my reasoning in a bit more detail. 

First a big disclaimer: as well as being a service used by my constituents in Kilburn ward, my daughter attends Acol.  This means I have a personal and prejudicial interest in the decision, so I have to restrict what I have to say on this to speaking outside council meetings – which is why I won’t be joining deputations to the Cabinet meeting, for example.

Back in December the Cabinet agreed a financial strategy which would see two children’s centres closing; this next iteration sets out which two have been selected for closure (Acol and Caversham, in Cantelowes ward, NW5) and the criteria used for selection. 

The main problem I have with the criteria used and the selection made, in terms of Acol, is about location, demand and supply.  However, it should not escape notice that no mention is made of the quality of service supplied; whilst there are no under-performing centres in the borough, Acol is one of only two across Camden to have an outstanding Ofsted inspection report.

My real concern is that, despite being in what is called a ‘locality’ grouping of four nurseries, rather than three for most other localities¸these centres stand alone in the north and west of the borough.  The map below sets out the picture quite starkly, which shows what parts of the borough are within half a mile of the existing centres:

Map showing distribution of Camden's children's centres

To look at it another way, there are only four children’s centres in Hampstead & Kilburn constituency (one voluntary, three run by Camden); the remaining 12 are in Holborn & St Pancras (eight Camden-run, three school based and one voluntary).

This imbalance is compounded when one considers the latent demand and supply of places across Camden.  Using figures provided to parents on size of waiting list and number of places offered, places offered, I have calculated a ‘in-demand/over-subscription factor’ – which ranks Acol as third in the borough.

  Places Waiting list Current places being filled FTEs as a % of each centre’s capacity factor of over-subscription – numbers waiting / places
Kilburn Grange 48 293 1 100% 6.1
Harmood 60 352 0 100% 5.9
Acol 45 261 0 100% 5.8
Agar 66 203 7 89% 3.1
Konstam 69 165 3 96% 2.4
Gospel Oak 73 155 0 100% 2.1
1A 42 79 3 95% 1.9
Langtry 73 130 1 100% 1.8
Hampden 69 75 2 100% 1.1
Caversham 25 26 0 100% 1
Regents Park 93 96 0 100% 1

 

When one looks at this level of demand across the locality clusters into which Camden’s children’s centres are grouped, Kilburn comes out clearly in the lead- with four times the level of demand/over-subscription than that of Euston at the bottom of the table. 

By cluster    
  Waiting list Places factor of over-subscription – numbers waiting / places
Kilburn 684 166 4.1
KT West 507 133 3.8
KT East 394 160 2.5
KX & Holborn 79 42 1.9
Euston 171 162 1.1

 

After all, it’s not for nothing that the council is proceeding with plans to open a new two-form entry primary school in Lidell Road, West Hampstead.  If there is sufficient demand for primary places, it must follow logically that there is demand in our area for nursery places.

My argument is primarily that this is the wrong centre – given the under-provision in our part of the world, it doesn’t seem fair to take a centre away, especially given the high levels of demand.  But I would also ask if officers have given enough thought about moving from the current rather crude two-band charging structure for Camden’s children’s centres to something more sophisticated, which reflects the fact that many parents would pay more, whilst still getting a better, and cheaper service than they get at a private nursery. 

Against all this, I would be really remiss if I didn’t make two points in mitigation on behalf of the Cabinet and the Labour Group of councillors.  First, whilst other council departments were asked to make 20% cuts, Labour councillors, backed up by the Cabinet, made it clear that early years was a real priority for our Labour administration, so the Children, Schools and Families Directorate was asked to find only 10% savings in its budget.  Pace any changes in charging, or reprioritising elsewhere, this still necessitates closing two centres.

And why are 10% cuts still necessary?  Because the ideological zeal of the Con-Lib Dem coalition government in cutting too far, too fast has left Camden cutting £90m from its budget over the next three years. 

For instance, the Government grants that used to fund 90% of Camden’s Sure Start services have been rolled into one new ‘Early Intervention Grant’.  This new grant is 22% lower than the combined total of the Government monies Camden previously received for early years.  So much for the election promises to protect Sure Start.

So every bit of council service has to face a cut to some degree.  An enormous amount has been done to make back-office efficiencies, but – and this is where the Government’s rhetoric is dead wrong – you simply can’t accommodate all these cuts without hitting frontline services.

Let’s be clear: no Labour councillor or council would want to cut children’s centres.  Camden was one of the first to embrace Sure Start and roll it out across the borough.  The real place to lay blame is at the feet of the Tories and Lib Dems.  They’ve been very quiet on whether they think that the cut in EIG, indeed the whole deficit reduction programme, is justified in terms of the impact it will have.

In the meantime, as a parent and a local councillor, I’ll argue where I can against the closure of Acol, even if it goes against the recommendations of my Cabinet colleagues.  If you agree, or want to express an alternative view, Camden has a statutory responsibility to consult on closing children’s centres, which will be launched soon after the Cabinet meeting (if it agrees to proceed down this path) – I’ll post a link when this comes up.

In the meantime, there’s a Facebook group you can join and a petition you can sign, set up by parents at Acol (including my wife!), if you want to show your support – I would encourage you to do so.

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