This month Bradford's newest purpose-built children's centre has opened its doors to the community. HELEN MEAD asked what it means for local families.

When Bradford South MP Gerry Sutcliffe came to open the new children's centre on a Bradford estate, there was much excitement.

Mums, dads and dozens of youngsters turned up at the £1.2 million, state-of-the-art, purpose-built centre in Holme Wood - the latest of a number across the district that have changed people's lives for the better.

Two months on, and that is already starting to happen in this friendly community. With affordable childcare, drop-in sessions, holiday activities and parents' groups, the building is fast becoming a focal point.

Officially opened by Mr Sutcliffe in September - when local people were invited to look around - this month the doors were opened to the public, and the response has been phenomenal.

"It has been fantastic, everybody loves it," says Sarah Procter, programme manger for SureStart in Holme Wood, Bierley and Tyersal. "Lots of people have been dropping in asking about the facilities, others have been ringing up, and the pre-school nursery group is already full,"

A series of imaginatively-designed nurseries and play areas for babies and pre-school children under five are just part of the package of services offered at the SureStart Children's Centre, part of the Government's SureStart Local Programme initiative, giving support to families with young children. Across the country, more than 500 SureStart Local Programmes - Bradford has eight, involving 33 children's centres - are helping to improve the lives of 400,000 youngsters and their parents. Each plays a part in the Government's ambition to halve child poverty by 2010, and contributes hugely to the aim of delivering opportunity and security for everyone.

It is hoped that the services offered by each centre will give youngsters the best possible start in life through increasing the availability of childcare in early years, improving health, education and emotional development for youngsters, while supporting parents by opening up opportunities for them to return to education or find work.

Among the initiatives at the Holme Wood centre - which came about thanks to a successful partnership between SureStart Bierley, Holme Wood and Tyersal, Knowleswood Primary School, Bradford early Years and Childcare Services - is a pilot project offering seven-and-a-half hours free childcare for two-year-olds, with the aim of monitoring how well youngsters respond to early, fun-based, education. It also frees up parents to return to college or attend job interviews.

At present 16 youngsters are catered for under the project, called PiNGU's (pre-nursery group users), but staff hope that figure will rise in the future. "It is fully booked, the response has been incredible," says Mrs Procter. "We are getting enquiries every day."

Mum Jayne Lindley, 41, brings her son Aaron to the free sessions. "It is great. I don't have to stay with him, and Aaron is happy to be here. He has developed such a lot - his play and language is really improving. And it gives parents time to get on with other things. I'm really benefiting from it, and so is he."

Parents are also using the fee-paying nursery for older children, which provides full-time care.

The centre - built in the grounds of Knowleswood Primary School - is fast becoming a hub of the community, a place where parents can share concerns. "A lot of families with very young children don't go out much and can feel isolated," says family development worker and local resident Lyndsey Wood.

"If people have a problem of any sort there is someone here they can talk to, who will either try to help them directly or let them know where to go for help. Often, it helps just knowing that there is someone out there if you ever need them."

Issues dealt with are not centred solely on child-rearing, but include problems such as debt and housing difficulties.

There is a special advice service for single parents under the age of 21. Family development worker Kirsty Layton, herself a young mum, says: "We have a high rate of teenage pregnancies in this area - I was 15 myself when I became a mum - and a high number are single parents.

"We are here to help those young parents, who can sometimes feel trapped in their homes, and scared. But with the right support, they can return to education or go back to work."

She adds: "We want them to know that they are not on their own and that, although they are now responsible for bringing up children, they can take steps to do something for themselves that will benefit them in the long-term. Having been in that position myself, I can understand and relate to them."

One of the most innovative schemes is a ten-week course aimed at preparing teenagers for family life, focusing on sexual health, relationships and pregnancy.

Short-term care is available free of charge at the centre, for local parents who have a family crisis, such as a bereavement or health problems. And rooms within the building will be used by a variety of health professionals including health visitors, school nurses and paediatricians. It is hoped that a midwife will also be available.

Special sessions for youngsters include language development, with children aged between two and five following a special programme designed by a speech and language therapist. Parents will be encouraged to work with their children on developing language and social skills, which will hopefully lead to them taking a more active role throughout their children's school career.

Knowleswood School, whose staff helped to plan the centre, is also benefiting from the many new resources, including facilities for parents' meetings. Head teacher John McGowan described the new building as "a tremendous opportunity" for Holme Wood.

Adds Sarah Procter: "I think it is important for families to be able to come and use the services we have here. We want to develop parents' confidence so they can aspire to careers that will support them, with salaries that will help to pay for childcare. It is great to see the centre buzzing with life, full of parents and children."