Now, more than ever, we need to consider the worth of volunteers in our children's centres, writes Sharon Hodgson MP.
A few weeks ago, I met members of the Cowgate community in Newcastle.
Their journey as family support volunteers at Action for Children's Cowgate Children's Centre has significantly changed their own lives, and at the same time been of huge benefit to other parents who use the children's centre.
I met volunteers whose self-esteem, and confidence and ability to parent their own children has increased hugely because of their volunteering.
In addition, they have supported, on a peer-to-peer level, numerous other parents who needed extra support by providing practical support and a pastoral role to these families.
Research launched this week by Action for Children has evaluated the impact that volunteers in its children's centres have on children and families, staff and the local community.
It demonstrates clearly that volunteers bring extra capacity and provide an informal, reassuring presence for other families using children's centres. They act as role models to the local community, and contribute unique skills and experience – just as I discovered when I visited Cowgate Children's Centre, and indeed many of the excellent children's centres I have visited across the country.
The Cowgate Family Support Volunteer Project trains volunteers and matches them with families, who they visit in their homes to provide support and access to services. The fact that the project uses local volunteers is a real strength as they are well placed to know and understand the challenges facing families in their community, and they are able to quickly gain the trust of some families who may shy away from meeting professionals in more formal settings.
Action for Children's research shows that volunteering in children's centres strengthens links with the local community; increases the use and reach of children's centres by helping to break down any stigma of using them; and creates invaluable opportunities for volunteers, such as a route to employment, education or training.
And these findings are mirrored by the work that the Innovation Unit has been doing around the country under the auspices of the Transforming Early Years programme – bringing communities together to examine the challenges they face and design the solutions to those challenges, including using volunteers and peer-to-peer networks to bring the hardest to reach families into children's centres, where they can get the support they need to give their children the best possible start in life.
I will never forgive the government's decision to cut a fifth of the budget for early intervention over the three financial years they have been in power, and have seen for myself the real strain that this is causing to the Sure Start network, with children's centres around the country facing closure, mergers and budget cuts up to 95% in some areas.
But now there is less money around and tough decisions have to be made, we need to look to the ‘added value' that children's centres can provide, and the savings that targeted investment can give the country for years to come.
So now, more than ever, we need to consider the worth of volunteers in our children's centres and the benefits to staff, children and families, and of course the volunteers themselves.
This should not about doing early intervention on the cheap; it should be about getting the most out of the skills and expertise of professionals, and passing them on to communities.
Volunteers have a huge role to play in this, and the government and local authorities alike would be well advised to ensure that all of our children's centres are supported to develop their base of volunteers, and increase their reach throughout our communities.