THE future of two children’s centres is in doubt again only a year after a national charity took over responsibility for them.
Action for Children is reviewing how the Rainbow centres in Henley and Sonning Common are run.
Staff are being formally consulted but the Henley Standard understands that they are being asked to re-apply for their jobs and that the administrator at the Henley centre has already left.
The move comes less than four months after parents won a campaign to stop the centres being closed as part of cuts by Oxfordshire County Council.
The centres — at the d:two centre in Market Place, Henley, and Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common — help needy families with children from birth to age five.
They used to be run by youth and community group Nomad, which is also based at the d:two centre, but its contract expired on March 31 last year and the county council awarded a new two-year contract to Action For Children.
Roger Cole, pastor of Henley Baptist Church, which is also based at the d:two centre, said: “There’s quite a lot of disappointed staff and we’re aware that some of these people are losing their jobs. It’s very distressing seeing the main administrator lose her job.
“People are being asked to re-apply for their jobs but I don’t think they will necessarily be able to get them back because the requirements are much, much higher.
“They have worked at one level and now they’re being asked to do much more.
“It has affected the nature of the place and the atmosphere. We feel it won’t be long before services won’t be able to be supported at the same level.”
Mr Cole said he was concerned about the wellbeing of the children. “When Action for Children took over the children’s centre there were some people who didn’t want to continue but they were never replaced so there was a much reduced staff.”
Emma Taylor, 39, of Western Avenue, Henley, who launched the campaign to save the centres from closure last year, said: “We’re very concerned to hear about the potential job losses.
“This is a vital service for the town. We do have pockets of deprivation in Henley and what the children’s centre does brilliantly is bring together people from all walks of life to mix while providing services and support through qualified staff that these people might need.
“Action for Children is beginning to look like a large corporation rather than focusing on providing children’s centre services.”
Mrs Taylor, who has been taking her four-year-old daughter Lilia to the Henley centre since it opened in 2010 and is a volunteer there, said she was concerned about qualified and trained staff being replaced by either volunteers or employees responsible for a number of centres.
She said: “We’re trying to find out whether the council funding is actually per children’s centre of whether they are given a lump sum.”
Henley Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “I am shocked that Action for Children is going through a restructuring that may mean job losses at the Rainbow centre.
“The staff have been there for quite a number of years, so have built up a great amount of experience in running the centre.
“To reduce the staff levels will call into question Action for Children’s commitment to Henley and I would hope they would honour their contract with Oxfordshire County Council and maintain the staff levels as they are.”
Action for Children, which has an annual turnover of about £184million, is now responsible for 14 of the 15 voluntary sector-run centres in Oxfordshire.
Nomad, which had managed the Henley and Sonning Common centres for four years, said it lost the contract for financial reasons, not because of the quality of its service.
Sue Prior, who runs Nomad, said: “I think the staff have been told not to say anything but that leaves me feeling very concerned not only for the staff, many of whom we employed under our management, but also about the future of the services. It feels like everything that we built and established is under threat.”
She claimed that staff were having to re-apply for jobs with different descriptions and pay scales.
“One of the requirements is that staff are able to drive, which probably eliminates a number,” said Mrs Prior. “This was not one of our requirements because we wanted staff based at grassroots level.”
Former mayor Barry Wood, who sits on Nomad’s advisory committee, said: “I’m very concerned about the wellbeing of the families that use the centre.
“I’m also very concerned about the staff because some of them were trained by Nomad and devoted to Nomad.
“Action for Children do not have a foothold in this town — they are a national organisation.”
Mr Wood said the charity’s ethos was “completely alien” to Nomad, which had an income of £140,000 and barely made a profit.
“The previous centres run by Nomad were for the less-than-wealthy families of our community. I hope those people who turned their backs on Nomad feel pretty humiliated.
“I am completely at odds with Oxfordshire County Council and the way they have shafted the Henley community.”
The change in service provider came just over a year after the £1.3million redevelopment of the d:two centre, which now has a 200-seat auditorium, meeting rooms, concert and conference facilities, book shop, cyber café, coffee shop and crèche.
As part of the redevelopment, an agreement was made to secure the building’s continued use as a children’s centre, so the county council was able to review the service provider.
The Rainbow centre in Sonning Common serves Woodcote and Goring and is owned by the council.
When Action for Children was awarded the contract, it said it was “committed to continuing to run services in Oxford that have a strong local focus and which respond to local needs”.
Laurie Long, operational director at Action for Children in Oxfordshire, said: “We are here, first and foremost, to protect the most vulnerable children, young people and families in Oxfordshire.
“We are proposing changes in order to create a more mobile service — one which can reach more families across the county and particularly those who traditionally wouldn’t visit children’s centres.
“We are in the process of a full consultation with staff to make sure we take account of their views. No decisions will be made about any changes until this has been completed.
“As always, our absolute priority is delivering the best service we can to children and families in the local area and to make sure we are in the best place possible to do that so we can provide more help for the people who need us most.”
A spokesman for the county council said the contract to run the centre was awarded to the charity after a “rigorous” tendering process.