The Minor Parties are Clueless on Sure Start

This Election will determine the future of Sure Start.

Last week we reviewed the Labour and Tory manifestos – or rather, we pointed out the complete absence of any mention of Sure Start in the Tory manifestos. This week we look at the minor parties’ offerings.

Credibility deficit
Credibility deficit

Only one of these parties appears to understand what Sure Start is. And that party shares responsibility for the closure of 800 Children’s Centres!

The party who promised to abolish tuition fees (then voted to triple them) claim they have put education “at the heart” of their agenda. The Lib Dems made promises of a plan that “stretches from cradle to college” including a series of commitments to childcare costs, early education and early intervention.

If we want a more equal society, we must get help to all those who might fall behind, and their parents, right from the start. That means improving early education and protecting the wide range of family support services offered in Children’s Centres. – Liberal Democrat Manifesto

This is a commendable goal but will the Lib Dems actually deliver this?

Since 2010, in cahoots with the Tories they:

  • •Unringfenced Sure Start Children’s Centres; merged 18 funding streams into one Early Intervention Grant whilst introducing a significant cut which Gove described as “inevitable”.
  • •Paid for their headline 2 year old offer by taking money used by councils to pay for Children’s Centres, trips for disabled children, the youth crime action plan, mental health in schools and more. As Sharon Hodgson MP put it “robbing Peter to pay Paul” whilst giving tax cuts to millionaires.
  • Paid for their adoption reform by taking even more money from this budget.
  • Took away the requirement for Children’s Centres in the poorest areas to provide full daycare; despite the fact that they’re of higher quality on average, have better qualified staff and cater for more children with moderate and severe disabilities than other settings.
  • Changed childcare ratios so one adult can take care of six toddlers instead of four in the face of opposition from professionals.
  • •Presided over cuts leading to the closure of 800 centres.
  • Left remaining centres operating with reduced opening hours and services, fewer qualified staff and charging for service that were once free.

The Lib Dem manifesto understands what Sure Start is. But the party’s promises no longer carry any credibility.

The Green Party manifesto bizarrely lavishes praise upon Sure Start, but completely misunderstands what it is.

Warm words but no substance
Warm words but no substance

Great credit is due to the previous Labour government for its Sure Start children’s centres. But too many of these have closed as a result of austerity. Although support for childcare has grown under the Coalition, the government provides scant support to parents in the first two years of a child’s life, and too much of the emphasis for the next three years is on expanding free and subsidised childcare so that parents, especially women, can work.         – Green manifesto

Evidence shows that disadvantaged children who attend childcare settings with children from mixed social backgrounds progress better and that lower quality childcare provides no positive impact on children. In light of this, the Greens want to create a voluntary but universal high-quality early years education system used by everyone.

This is an ambitious proposal which the Greens estimate will cost £8bn above what is currently spent on early years. In addition, the total cost of their policies in 2015 will equal £60.3bn, yet they have only identified £3.5bn worth of savings.

Furthermore, the Green manifesto says nothing about supporting families, nurturing children and providing wraparound services in the community. Sure Start is about so much more than just childcare.

Meanwhile none of the nationalist parties even mention Children’s Centres in their manifestos. Granted, Sure Start was always structured differently in Scotland and Wales, but the SNP and Plaid Cymru both make the same mistake of completely ignoring the vital family support and community roles of Children’s Centres.

The SNP pledge to increase free childcare to 30 hours per week by 2020 for all 3 and 4 year olds and eligible 2 year olds in order to “reduce child poverty” and give “young Scots the best possible start in life”.

The cost of childcare is a huge problem; it takes a huge chunk of parent’s wages and leaves others simply unable to work. But giving children a good start requires more than just relieving the financial burden on parents. It requires support, early intervention and quality early education, three things that the SNP manifesto has neglected.

Plaid Cymru also neglect these three things. Their solution is for children to start school a year early. How such a huge commitment will be funded is far from clear.

The final nationalist party is UKIP – and their ideas are simply scary.

Terrifying
Terrifying

UKIP has committed to de-regulating childcare provision “in order to address the shortage of places and cut the cost to both parents and the state”.

At the moment, if parents want to claim their free childcare entitlement, they must place their child with an Ofsted-registered childminder. UKIP will remove this requirement and allow parents to use any third-party, non-related child carer. – UKIP manifesto

This would lead to an unregulated race to the bottom where money is the only determinant of quality of care. This is bad enough, but the safeguarding risks of removing Ofsted registration are terrifying.

The early years are the most crucial stage to stop children from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind their better off peers at school and getting the best start in life.

Moreover, a failure to invest in quality childcare and early years services can lead to greater costs as the state will later pay for expensive school catch-up interventions, support services and the youth justice and prison systems for those children who have been most failed.

The UKIP pledge to limit child benefit to two children is also worrying; this will inevitably punish larger families and push many children across Britain into poverty.

The Lib Dems and Greens have recognised the important of the Children’s Centres created by Labour. However, one has spent 5 years dismantling them with the Tories whilst the other has fallen into the trap of minor parties making grand promises which couldn’t possibly be funded without significant taxation and or borrowing. It is also clear that the Conservatives, UKIP, the SNP and Plaid are concerned only with getting parents back into work.

“Labour created Sure Start and only Labour understands it. All the other parties are fighting a narrow battle over nursery entitlements. Only Labour understands the unique blend of childcare and family support which make our Children’s Centres so special. If you care about Sure Start: vote Labour” – Michael Pavey, LFoSS Director.

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