Children's centres are intended to be a mainstream, universal service. They began in 2004 and their origins are diverse. Some replaced various forms of local provision, most notably Sure Start programmes; others were established from scratch. Issues for exploratory empirical work have been identified from the guidance issued by central government. Using interview data from three urban local authorities, this article explores the nature of the 'core offer' that centres are expected to provide and the way in which they have pursued the goal of integrating staff and services. The article highlights the problems of balancing a focus on the child and on the parent; of reconciling childcare provision as part of the employability agenda and as a means to educational achievement for the child; of permitting local variation while achieving consistency; of the role of monitoring in relation to developing good practice; and of achieving integration in a mixed economy of care. We find that despite the greater specification of the core offer for children's centres compared to that for Sure Start, there are substantial differences between children's centres in terms of services, while the mixed economy of provision poses considerable challenges to the goal of integration
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