Councils that improve support for families will get extra funds under a new government trial.
The 26 councils in England involved in the trial will be measured against a range of targets aimed at increasing children's readiness for school, according to a report by BBC News today.
As part of wider reforms to early learning, the Government is looking at ways to get parents and communities more involved in running Sure Start Children's Centres.
The pay-by-results grant is intended for services to improve the lives and chances of children, such as improved breastfeeding support and access to early years education.
The trials will look at how to reward local authorities and centres on how well they reach and support the most vulnerable families to narrow gaps in development between rich and poor children under five; raise attainment at the end of the foundation years and improve family health and wellbeing.
Children's Minister Sarah Teather said the main focus of the scheme is for councils to reduce inequality. She said high-quality early years support could have a lasting impact on children's lives, and that the government was committed to maintaining a national network of Sure Start centres that helped families in greatest need.
In order to receive the grants, councils in the scheme will have to improve outcomes for children through services offered by their children's centres, in addition to improving the skills of parents that need support. If the scheme is successful it could be rolled out across England.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, which runs Sure Start centres, said:"Without doubt, the measures chosen focus on the crucial areas of development for children – successful breastfeeding, early years education and reaching the most vulnerable families. These are the building blocks of children's healthy development and will enable Children's Centres to demonstrate their effectiveness and design their children's centre systems and partnerships around these important factors.
"But this is still part of a trial which is testing effectiveness and feasibility and it will require local authorities to work closely with their partners – especially health professionals and the voluntary sector to establish positive ways of constantly improving practice, measuring impact and integrating with wider services."
Shift in service provision
The announcement of the trial coincides with the start of a consultation today by the Department for Education into changes to statutory guidance on Sure Start Children's Centres. It comes as many centres throughout the country have been earmarked for closure and merger.
Under the new draft guidance, a children's centre has been redefined as a place where users can be directed towards certain services rather than providing them itself. A children's centre may simply "provide advice and assistance on gaining access to services elsewhere" under the changes.
Yet there are fears that this shift in service provision will deter the families it is designed to help.
"I'm afraid I think this boils down to headline chasing," says Tamsin Kelly, editor of parenting website Parentdish.co.uk. "The Government is simply taking away with one hand and giving with another – and confusing parents, especially the disadvantaged, who simply want help and encouragement in their local community, not to be sent from one place to another when they traditionally they would have gone to their local Sure Start centres."