Fight is on to save much-loved children’s centre from closure

Parents and children demonstrating outside the Ponteland Sure Start
Parents and children demonstrating outside the Ponteland Sure Start

Parents and carers have warned that many children will lose out if a purpose-built facility in Ponteland is no longer available to them.

Northumberland County Council is proposing changes at five children’s centres, known as Sure Start, in order to save costs and provide the services for under fives in different ways.

In Ponteland, the building on Thornhill Road would be closed and the authority would discuss its future use with other interested parties such as the two schools located next to it – Richard Coates Middle School and Ponteland First School.

Children’s centre services would be provided in other venues such as the library, St Mary’s Church Hall and the Memorial Hall.

In its consultation document, the council expects that there will be some reduction in the level of services as a result. It would only be able to continue to provide the same level of support as now for ‘families in need’.

As part of the consultation, a public meeting took place at the centre last Thursday and dozens of people were in attendance.

Many of them raised concerns over the proposals, including Brenda Walton, who takes her grandchildren to the facility.

“This is the by far the best children’s centre I’ve been to,” she said.

“When I took my children to church halls, nothing was cleared away or looked after. We need to be going forwards, not going back 20 years.”

Aniqa Malik, a teaching assistant with a seven-year-old daughter, said: “Coming here enabled me to build up my confidence when I was a new mum and it’s a big help with the transition to nursery and school.”

A few couples who have adopted children spoke at the meeting and one of the mothers said: “When we received our children, we didn’t know that there was a specific place we could take them during the day and so when we found out about this centre, it was a lifesaver.

“We were able to get expert advice on parenting and access a course, which has made a huge difference.”

Other points raised included the fact that it is used by people living in rural villages such as Belsay, Stamfordham and Matfen and professionals such as a domestic violence adviser, occupational therapist and speech therapist would no longer have a base in Ponteland.

Childcare provider Sandra Brown said that running activities in different general community venues is not the best way to deliver early years services.

She added: “I have delivered them from a church hall in the past and I can tell you from experience that it’s very difficult. There are issues with storing equipment and safeguarding.”

Jane Bowie, head of safeguarding and strategic commissioning at the county council, said: “We need to make savings as part of our contribution to the national austerity programme. In addition, Ofsted has changed what promotes as best practice and core outcomes.

“We have been looking at ways to protect frontline services with a reduced budget and this includes running them from community venues. We also want to ensure that parents can still get the advice and support that they need.”

Mary Connor, senior manager for early intervention and prevention, also represented the council at the meeting.

She said: “There is a mixed demographic in Ponteland as more mothers work and use nursery or childminding services than those in other areas.

“Thorough assessments would be carried out to make sure that the community venues are appropriate for particular activities.”

Activities at the centre include stay and play, a baby club, rhyme and sign and a monthly Saturdads session for fathers and granddads and there are a range of courses such as cooking, family health and well-being and first aid.

Parent Maria Lunn asked why requests to the council for wi-fi to help set up adult learning courses and for the venue to be available for private children’s parties were turned down. She was told that she would get a response as soon as possible.