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12. Early childhood centre

12.1. Short description

Lille has supported the implementation of early childhood centres, especially in popular neighbourhoods. These early childhood centres are multi-stakeholder, multi-service facilities, which create networks and pathways between professionals, child-care services, and institutions. It is a local way for governing the diversification of facilities at the neighbourhood level, and preventing the social polarisation of services. Such services work thanks to local child-care coordinators, a new profession. Moreover, these kinds of centres provide a lively space for parents and children with temporary and permanent information, special events, and activities embedded in the neighbourhood.

This case study focuses on the Childhood centre Halte-garderie doux calins (Tender loving part-time child-care centre) in the Faubourg de Béthune district. Our choice is justified by the fact that this service is located in one of the most popular and precarious districts in Lille, the pioneering and original nature of certain experimentations, and also the difficulties encountered in the attempt to consolidate and generalise these experiments.

The Faubourg de Béthune Childhood centre was founded at the end of the 1990s. In the same place, it groups together a part-time child-care centre (“Halte-garderie”), maternal and infant health and care protection centre (Protection Maternelle et Infantile), a child-minder centre (Relais assistants maternelles), a recreation centre, and a games library. The Doux calins (Tender loving) part-time child-care centre is an association created at the beginning of the 1990s following the observations made by local government representatives and various professionals of the educational difficulties faced by many single mothers, and the lack of any activity centre for young children in this district. Each year, it provides 20 hours of child care services per week for the children of 145-50 families (including 35 single-parent families in 2009), which still seems to be inadequate as there were 86 families on the waiting list in 2011. The request to create a multi-child care facility (combining part-time and full-time child-care facilities) has been on hold for several years due to a lack of funding.

The Béthune district is a disadvantaged residential district in the south-western part of Lille, a city with a population of 232,432 inhabitants. It is an urban tax-free zone, where 77 per cent of the housing units are social housing. The unemployment rate in this district exceeds 30 per cent, and there is a high proportion of immigrants. Together with Moulins, this is one of the districts in which there is the highest number of single-parent families with nearly 40 per cent of children living with a single parent (Compas, ABS 2006: 18, 23). Thirty-seven per cent of the children live in a poor household (900 euros per month in 2006, ABS 2006: 26). Nearly 30 per cent of the children in the part-time and full-time child-care centres are from single-parent families.

12.2. Types of services and ways of addressing users

As of its creation, the project of the Doux calins part-time child-care centre was to involve parents in the district in its management and in leading activities. Different types of participation can be identified:

  • participation on the Board of Directors and as officers of the association;
  • participation in preparing and leading activities such as outings, and parties;
  • meeting with families and listening to their concerns.

This participation is generally beneficial to the parents who get involved. When mothers organise activities, they gain self-esteem and confidence in their personal capacities. For several of them, this responsibility was a step toward finding a new job. Nonetheless, several of the people interviewed stressed that there were more and more obstacles preventing parent participation. Besides the fact that it is a short-term involvement (1-2 years), linked to the age of their children, participating in managing the whole budget of an association is not always easy for parents who often live with limited financial resources. More generally speaking, parents seem to have less time available to devote to collective activities than a few years ago. Child-care professionals have observed that single mothers are often overwhelmed with time constraints (a combination of family, work and administrative issues) that make them less available.

Many of the parents are in a precarious professional situation (unemployed, completing training, or with a government subsidised job). Child care often permits single mothers, who are in the national priority group, to complete training, look for a job, or work part-time. Since parents regularly confide in the child-care professionals about diverse personal issues, the part-time child-care centres also play a role in orienting them toward appropriate employment services, social services, and associations in the district.

Parenting support is a priority in both the part-time and the full-time child-care centres. Child-care professionals agree that there are definite educational challenges. Children lack points of reference, and parents lack authority, but there are also language problems in immigrant families in which French is not always well spoken. Early childhood centre (ECC) professionals take turns co-organising regular workshops with the parents. Along with the Arpège association, the ECC organises coffee breaks at the pre-schools in the morning. These are informal meetings with the parents who are so inclined. They facilitate contact with parents who are sometimes reticent about participating in formal meetings organised in social institutions. This type of initiative is part of a combined reflection on the difficulties involved in touching certain parents who do not go to the social centre or games library very often. These parenting activities have also helped bring about more significant involvement of fathers of immigrant origins who are more present and participate more in literacy activities organised at the social centre.

The Béthune ECC along with its partners has created an experimental welcome booklet for families and professionals, which includes information on all the early childhood services and associations in the district as well as a way to monitor contacts with the various professionals. If this initial booklet proves to be successful, it will be further developed in the future.

12.3. Internal organisation and mode of working

The ECC is lucky to have two people taking care of its daily operations: a receptionist, who informs and orients parents toward different services and organisations, and a coordinator and activities leader, who builds synergy between member organisations and helps put together common projects. It is worth noting that the Béthune ECC is the only one in Lille where there is a coordinator in addition to a receptionist. The presence in the same place of a variety of services makes it easier to guide families, to help them visit the appropriate services and meet with the right professionals, to organise common events such as the tale festival, and to resolve informal problems. The Béthune ECC was the model used by City Hall, the local General Council and Family Allowance Office to draw up a charter for early childhood centres in Lille. Grouping together several services and organisations in the same place also enables professional services to be mutualised. For example, an occupational therapist has been working with the children at the ECC for many years. Likewise, all of the professionals in all of the services participated in a quarterly meeting with a child psychiatrist, who is a professor at the University of Lyon, to exchange their experiences about the specific difficulties encountered by the professionals with the families. In addition, the ECC enables cross-disciplinary professional training to be organised, which is open to employees from all its member organisations. One such example is a music appreciation class.

Having observed that many parents were enrolling their children in pre-school at an earlier and earlier age (before they turned 3), the Director of the part-time child-care centre (Halte-garderie Doux Calins) ran a survey on the expectations of professionals and parents. A need for parenting support for the transition between the child-care centre and the national pre-school led to the setting up in 2003 of preparatory half-days for children with their parents at the pre-school. Through dialogue with professionals, a progressive calendar for integrating these children was established, which takes into account the behaviour and the maturity of the children who are less than 3 years.

12.4. Embeddedness of the project in the local welfare system

The Director of the Doux calins part-time child-care centre has a twofold mission: she manages the child-care service, and also oversees social development in the district. This set up is original because it enables her to spend time working on various partnerships with local institutions, such as the school and city hall, and associations as well as inhabitants. It also enables her to monitor and assess the needs of families through information-exchange sessions and surveys. Several activities are carried out with other institutions and organisations in the district. The person in charge of the ECC, and the part-time child-care centre Director, are members of an early childhood commission in the district. They are also involved as speakers at meetings and conferences organised by the city of Lille, such as the “Early Childhood General Assembly” held in 2011.

The first interviews bear witness to the fact that there are obstacles making it impossible to more widely develop several experiments. Several factors have been identified. The main factor has to do with the lack of resources and means to consolidate the innovative activities. For instance, several of them are not or are no longer funded by the CAF (Family Allowance Office). While the municipality continues supporting them, it is not always able to extend them to other districts. More generally speaking, the managerial pressure coming from those who finance the projects, for whom the percentage of places filled is the principal indicator used to assess the organisation, makes the professionals vulnerable and undermines these organisations, which have less time to devote to common projects and partnerships in the district. When management is optimised in terms of the number of places filled, this leaves less room for qualitative innovation. Another factor is the distance or barriers between professionals and users, limiting the involvement of users. Despite several local experimentations for supporting parental participation and develop parenthood activities and spaces, professionals remain too often perceived as part of the “institutional world” or considered as “social workers” which are sometimes seen as a complex even “hostile world” especially by recent immigrant parents.


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12. Early childhood centre

Categories: Child and family care