Despite the brutal cuts imposed by the Tory-led Government, Sure Start stands as one of the great legacies of the last Labour Government.
The excellent report by Labour MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen showing the vital importance of investing in children as early as possible was supposed to cement a cross-party consensus. Coalition Ministers welcomed the report, yet with timing that would be comic if the consequences weren’t so awful, Sure Start funding was then un-ringfenced and has been remorselessly slashed every year.
Before I became a Councillor I served as Chair of the Advisory Committee of one of the early Sure Start centres – Mitford in North Islington. At the time I also had a very young child and needed no persuading of the importance of decent and affordable childcare. It was a life-line for me and my daughter got so much out of her time there. I also saw that however important the Mitford centre was for me, there were some families for whom its services quite simply made the difference between them coping or not.
The life chances many children enjoy have been fundamentally changed and improved by Sure Start. Labour ministers realised that children thrive, in part, because their family thrives. Living in poverty, as almost half of Islington families do, is stressful and a bit of extra help and support when parents really need it can make a big difference.
In the decade since these early Sure Start centres opened, early years services in Islington have become much more sophisticated. Sure Start centres are now at the centre of a web of services run by the Council, NHS, voluntary organisations and schools. Each centre has family support staff who provide help to vulnerable families. This means every family in need can access a dedicated support worker able to understand their needs and ensure they get the right services.
Each Children’s Centre is expected to contact every low income family in the area, knocking on their door if necessary, to ensure they are aware of its services. We measure how well each centre is running this outreach and the extent to which they are engaging harder to reach families.
Crucially, Islington’s sixteen Sure Start centres all still provide universal services to every family in the community, regardless of their background. Raising small kids is hard for everyone and meeting other parents can help provide valuable peer support. So each Sure Start centre provides targeted services to families with specific needs, nursery care with fees on a sliding scale according to income and sessions like baby bounce (singing) and chatterpillars (reading and talking) for all families.
I believe Sure Start is crucial so despite being hit hard by this government’s cuts, we have kept all of our sixteen centres open. But we’ve had to find savings and whilst we’ve protected the frontline, we’ve removed a layer of management at the centres so they work together in clusters to organise their outreach. This wasn’t painless because we lost some high quality and dedicated staff, but it saved the equivalent amount of money as closing a centre, without anything like the same loss of services. We have also stopped subsidising nursery places for the most affluent families in the borough, although the high quality of the Children’s Centre nurseries still means we have substantial waiting lists.
Finally, and crucially, the Labour Government invested in high quality new buildings for Sure Start centres. In 2008 the Mitford Centre moved out of the Second World War era huts it has occupied for thirty years and into a new purpose-built centre. No more were staff and children having to cope with cold, leaking rooms and computers could actually be used – the power supply in the old buildings wasn’t up to the strain! Michael Gove likes to pretend that the quality of buildings for children doesn’t matter, which is why he’s slashed new build after new build; but he couldn’t be more wrong. Having high quality buildings is important to running high quality services and it helps encourage more parents to use them.
The pressures on public spending mean that we will have to keep looking at ways of making Sure Start centre run as efficiently as possible. In Islington protecting these vital services is a priority and we’ve been able to find savings so far that don’t affect the quality of the service too much, but I fear for the future if massive further Government cuts are imposed.
A Labour Government set up Sure Start Children’s Centres because we understood that public spending needs to be focussed on preventing social problems in the first place not managing the consequences. There can be no better investment in our society than protecting and enhancing the network of Sure Start centres.
(this article was first published in the Labour Friends of Sure Start 'Sure Start, Sure Future' pamphlet, July 2013)