THE children’s centres in Henley and Sonning Common will offer a better service after staff changes, it was claimed this week.
Oxfordshire County Council said employees would be devoting more hours to frontline work in a bid to reach more vulnerable families.
The move follows a review of the service that is being carried out by Action for Children, the charity which runs the centres of behalf of the council.
The review has been criticised by campaigners who fear it will lead to the loss of experienced staff and could result in a poorer service.
The council says that Action for Children staff will be pooled but the overall number will not be reduced and the hours of frontline line work will increase from 135 hours a week to 172.
Four out of the five staff at the Henley centre were expected to take voluntary redundancy this week following consultation meetings with the charity and the main administrator has already left.
The Henley Standard understands the staff were invited to apply for new roles but these would require them to travel and have certain IT skills.
Action for Children won a two-year contract to run the Rainbow centres at the d:two centre in Market Place, Henley, and Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common just over a year ago.
The council says it asked the charity to increase the reach of the services provided and the number of registrations at the centres.
Councillor Melinda Tilley, cabinet member for children, education and families, said: “All services need to evolve and adapt to the changing circumstances of the areas they serve.
“In the case of children’s centres in Henley and Sonning Common, Oxfordshire County Council and Action for Children saw the need to adapt staffing so the centres could reach out further into communities and increase contact with families and children, especially in areas where contact was lower than we would have liked. It is proposed to pool staff and create a more flexible service, increasing reach and the skills and experience of the staff themselves.
“Action for Children is not in the business of running down services, lessening services, or reducing staffing. It is making changes that will make the children’s centres an even greater focal point in their local communities, allow them to provide better and more practical help to the people they serve and be of use and assistance to an increased number of families.”
Laurie Long, operational director at Action for Children, said: “We are adapting the way we work to reach more of the county’s most vulnerable children and young people and will continue to support and communicate with our staff through the process. We believe this will allow us to provide the best possible service to families in the areas.”
However, some campaigners were sceptical. Barry Wood, who sits on the advisory committee of Nomad, which lost the contract to run the centres, said: “Words are cheap and what we want to see is action on the ground. I want to see Action for Children come to Henley and tell the people of this town what its plans are and then we can monitor those plans. They need to win the hearts and minds of the people in the community they serve.
“A lot of disaffected families have actually walked away from the centres in the last year.”
Emma Taylor, a volunteer and parent at the Henley centre, who campaigned against the threat of closure to the centres last year, welcomed the attempt to make the staff more mobile and to reach more families.
But she added: “The council and Action for Children are not clarifying whether the existing excellent services provided in the centres themselves will be retained. We wouldn’t want to see them be reduced or closed.”
Mrs Taylor, 39, of Western Avenue, Henley, added: “I think what they say sounds good on the surface but they’re still not really confirming exactly what the plans are and that’s why we continue to monitor it and perhaps continue to have concerns.”
A meeting to discuss the centres is to be held at Henley town hall on Wednesday, hosted by the Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak. Mr Wood will attend along with councillors and an Action for Children representative.