February 2015 marks the second anniversary of Labour Friends of Sure Start. At our launch we welcomed then Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg. Today we are delighted that his successor Tristram Hunt has written exclusively for us.
It was one of the defining initiatives of the last Labour government – a plan to give young families and children the support they need in the pre-school early years. The evidence was compelling. Roughly eighty percent of the results gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers at GCSE is already present by the age of seven. And the same is true of a whole host of other important attributes – from wellbeing and emotional intelligence, to behaviour and concentration. To put it simply, in education, inequality begins far too early.
Labour’s Sure Start children’s centres were conceived as an answer to this challenge. Their whole purpose was geared towards closing the gap between disadvantaged children and those more fortunate; driven by a philosophy that no child should be left behind when taking their first steps inside a classroom. What is more, with educational achievement such a strong predictor of life-long success, the long-term hope was that they would begin to break down the cycle of deprivation present in too many of our communities.
The beauty of Sure Start is that it was a policy which tackles social injustice at source, whilst also providing a new community resource for parents and young families. Not for nothing did David Cameron go into the 2010 general election with a firm pledge to protect it. “Yes, we back Sure Start” he said, just a day before the poll. “It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.”
Alas, those warnings were more than justified. Under the Coalition government these vital services have withered on the vine. Across the country, there are 720 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010 and many more are running drastically reduced services. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the entire government. Because if anything the evidence in favour of intervention in the early years has become even more conclusive. The latest scientific research from fields as diverse as neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioural economics all points to the absolutely crucial bond formed between toddlers and parents for child development. Evidence shows this can have dramatic consequences for a whole host of outcomes later in life – from health, to wellbeing, happiness, material success, even employment opportunities. But whilst this seems a little strange it all points to a well understood truth – that children who grow up surrounded by love and stability have a far better shot at grasping life’s many opportunities with a healthy sense of self-esteem. That the Tories could be so neglectful towards the policy best placed to achieve this can only be seen as blinkered in the extreme.
Given today’s financial challenges, it could take some time for an incoming Labour government to build this service back up. But we have demonstrated our enduring passion for Sure Start by committing to protect the whole education budget in real terms including – unlike the other main parties – the crucial early intervention grant. Yet in the meantime we can also use what remains of our Sure Start public infrastructure far more effectively. Since 2010, hundreds of centres, often in the communities that need them most, have effectively been mothballed – opening only a few hours a day, or a few days a week. For me, this represents a tremendous untapped resource. Analysis from 4children, a leading children’s charity, suggests that 1,100 centres across England could be opened up to provide extra childcare places providing the political will was there. All this would require is a new duty for centres to open up their doors to charities and local childcare providers. That way local childcare providers could move in and offer more childcare places at a lower cost, tackling one of the key living standards issues faced by working families up and down the country. Research suggests we could provide an extra 50,000 childcare places by taking this approach.
However, more importantly, this extra activity could begin to restore Sure Start centres to their proper place as community family hubs. Childcare provision was always the lifeblood of these centres – increasing footfall and alerting families to the more specialist education services on offer. And in doing so, we can attack inequality and disadvantage at root. That surely is what so many of us are in politics to achieve. That’s why I’m promising that we’re going to put the lights back on, get the kids back in and restore the founding purpose of Sure Start. I came into politics because I’m passionate about improving education and life chances for all our children. Where better to start than ensuring poor kids in disadvantaged communities get the best start in life. That’s why Sure Start matters and why it will be a personal priority for me as education secretary in the next Labour government.
By Tristram Hunt MP, February 2015.