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Children's centres at risk in plans to improve Birmingham's 'inadequate' family services

Dozens of children's centres across Birmingham are being earmarked for closure under new plans by the council to overhaul its much-criticised children's services.

Instead, people would be able to access services in GP surgeries, schools, churches, and mosques - and could open in the evenings and at weekends for the first time.

But critics say it could leave the poorest and most vulnerable at greater risk.

Birmingham City Council today launched a consultation on plans to transfer the running of services to the Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust.

They said it would help families get access to help from pregnancy until the child starts school.

The move would also reduce the number of contracts held by the council from 76 to just one - meaning one organisation responsible for overseeing children's services, which council bosses said would help improve safety.

When you have serious case reviews, when you have children falling through the net, it's where systems aren't talking to each other.

So we're looking at going for the first time in Birmingham to one unified recording system for all our under-fives, where all their progress can be tracked and help can be offered to parents and families where they might need it.

We haven't had that before, so it's going to be a much safer system, we think.

– Cllr Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children's services
The changes come after a number of high-profile child deaths at the hands of their guardians

It comes after a number of high-profile cases in which children have died at the hands of those put in charge of keeping them safe.

Since 2009, Ofsted has repeatedly rated the children's department as 'inadequate'. At one point, the chief inspector described it as a "national disgrace".

The plans, which are now open to public consultation, are aimed at turning that around.

They include:

  • Reducing the number of children's centres from 70, down to 10 main 'hubs' - one for each parliamentary constituency in the city
  • Increasing the number of locations at which services can be accessed overall
  • This includes part-time outlets in GP surgeries, schools, churches and mosques
  • More flexible opening hours, including evenings and weekends
  • 52-week coverage – meaning the service will operate through school holidays
  • Access at all levels for children with disabilities – they currently use only specialist centres

Cllr Jones said while the council hoped to minimise the number of job losses, she could not say for sure how many would be cut until after the end of the consultation.

While the changes have partly been drawn up due to budget cuts, Cllr Jones insisted she thought the plan was best for families in Birmingham.

"Although we are doing this with less money than would be ideal, we would be creating this integrated service anyway as it provides a much better and fairer service than we currently have," she added.

The Trust's nursing director, Gareth Howells, agreed.

The partnership we've put together really enables us to broaden our offer, and provide targeted support to families who need help.

It enables us to enhance our health visiting service and ultimately to meet the aim of giving every child in Birmingham a good start in life so they can reach their full potential.

– Gareth Howells, nursing director at Birmingham Community Healthcare Trust

But some critics have been vocal about the plans to shut some children's centres - saying it would hit the poorest and most vulnerable in the city.

Gill Ogilvie, from the GMB union, branded the plans "disgusting".

"I think the council needs to, and can do, much more to ensure the safety and the future of these children's centres," she said.

"I think the council needs to be going back to the government and saying they don't have enough money, and they need to provide extra funding to make sure that the poorest families within this city are looked after."