Tag Archives: sure start

Sure Start and the big picture: bidding farewell to Children’s Centres in Norfolk

Norfolk County Council passed its budget earlier in the month. Nothing remarkable about that – councils up and down the land have been doing the same. In Norfolk, though, it marked the final act in an intense debate about how the Council supports new families and gives children a fair start in life. It’s a debate that has exposed some of the rawest edges of today’s politics.

Sure Start was a noble idea from the first Blair government: Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto described it as one of the Labour government’s greatest achievements. It aimed to deliver support to children from disadvantaged families by breaking down the barriers they face when accessing services. Children’s Centres were at the heart of the ‘offer’. A network of one-stop shops where families could find a range of support. Support that would ensure children were well looked after, their health needs met and they were equipped to learn and develop as they headed towards their school years. Changes to the funding regime introduced by the Coalition saw funding for Children’s Centres cut by almost £1 billion across that government’s term. The argument in favour of that change was that Children’s Centres are an inefficient way of supporting families that are most in need and that it makes more sense to have a flexible provision that can be better targeted and so deliver good outcomes and better value for money.

In the end, Norfolk County Council voted to close 38 of its 53 Children’s Centres and to halve the budget for the services that had been delivered through them. Time will tell whether I was right in warning that the £1 million cut in funding for front line service delivery is storing up trouble for the future – I sincerely hope I am wrong. What I learned from the months of debate, though, went well beyond the question of how best to deliver early help for families.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged and | 4 Comments

Sure Start centre closures hit vulnerable families hardest

One of my main election platforms last year when running for Oxfordshire County Council was the closure of our local children’s centre. I’m glad to report that it has re-opened as a community initiative, run by a committee of volunteers.

But that is not the case in many areas of the country. Research published today by the Sutton Trust and conducted by academics from Oxford University shows that as many as 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed since 2009, with 69% of local authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years.

Professor Kathy Silva, one of the authors of the “Stop Start” report, writes

We surveyed local authorities across the country and found reductions in senior staff and ‘hollowing out’ of open-access services, the kinds of non-stigmatising activities aimed at all families in the surrounding neighbourhood and not just those on the books of Social Services.

…Hard-pressed local authority officials described that cuts necessitated a major shift away from open access activities such as Stay & Play or Rhyme Time, to statutory duties of child protection or social work support for families whose children are ‘at risk’.

‘Stop Start’ has five key recommendations, one of which is

Children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose. Shifting the balance too far towards referred children and families, away from open access, and merging children’s centres into preventative teams working with a very much wider age group, serves a very different function and requires very different skills. It does not seem to fit well under the label of a local ‘children’s centre’. A good mix of children is important for social mobility and children’s social development.

This report follows on last year’s paper Closing Gaps Early, which analysed the role of early years policy in promoting social mobility. As the party who introduced free school meals, the pupil premium and shared parental leave, we understand that children need a good start in life. Equalising opportunity is key in fighting societal inequalities. The Closing Gaps Early report states:

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First Sure Start director has a positive verdict on new government’s children policies

Naomi Eisenstadt was the first director of the Sure Start program when it was created under Labour and in a press push around the publication of her new book has some interesting things to say about both Sure Start’s origins and the current coalition government.

On Sure Start’s creation and then rapid expansion, she points out how it didn’t fit the claimed public emphasis of the time on evidence-based policy because the expansion was rushed through before the initial pilots have been evaluated. However, she thinks pushing ahead regardless was right:

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