The future of Sure Start will be determined at this election.
The last Labour government wanted to make sure that children of all backgrounds received the right support early in their life. This moral objective would save money in the long run by removing the need for costly interventions during the later years.
New Labour in turn created a whole new early years infrastructure in the establishment of over 3,000 Children’s Centres across the country to act as community hubs for family services, including parenting support, childcare, back-to-work support, and community midwifery and health visiting.
The Tory manifesto has an entire section called ‘Giving your child the best start in life’ which makes absolutely no mention of these Children’s Centres; their plans to give children the best “start” don’t begin till Primary school age. Yet we know that by the time children start school, there are already significant gaps in the school-readiness of children from different backgrounds.
Decades of evidence show that children’s experiences and environment in their earliest years are critical in shaping outcomes for the rest of their lives. Children who don’t receive the right support in their first few years are more likely to have behavioural problems and be unable to communicate with teachers when they start school; are more likely to be behind and stay behind throughout their education, less likely to gain good qualifications and thus obtain a good job. They are also more likely to engage in violence, drinking, underage sex and drug use and end up going through the criminal justice or care system.
Given this, it is unacceptable that the most crucial stage in a child’s life for closing gaps and giving us socially just outcomes makes no feature in the Conservative manifesto. This is not surprising given that they have presided over the closure of over 800 Sure Start Children’s Centres.
“We will prioritise early years intervention to give children and parents the best start in family life, and restore the role of Sure Start centres as family hubs.” – Labour Manifesto
Labour’s original vision for Sure Start as a community institution acting as one-stop-shops for parents and all their support needs is far from what the Conservatives envision. For the Conservatives, supporting families means getting them back into work, nothing more and nothing less. This is reflected in their manifesto which pledged measures to reduce childcare costs in order “to help parents who want to work.”
It is important however to take parents and children out of the cycle of poverty with all its awful consequences which is why Labour have not only made a commitment to extend the free childcare offer to help parents get back into work, they have pledged to make work pay by raising the minimum wage and ending zero hours contracts.
“We will never forget how important a decent basic income is to a child’s prospects and wellbeing.” – Labour Manifesto
Surveys in 2007 and 2009 showed that requiring Children’s Centres to provide childcare increased parents’ awareness and use of them. However, in 2011 the Tory-Lib Dem government made the devastating mistake of scrapping the requirement of Sure Start centres in the most deprived areas from providing childcare. Now there is a shortage of pre-school places across the country and two-thirds of Children’s Centres no longer have nurseries in them.
Labour will ensure the children are put back into Children’s Centres, that families have accessible childcare and an incentive to go into family hubs where they can then access additional support.
“Sure Start will have an obligation to provide families with access to childcare, opening their facilities to charities and local childcare providers.” – Labour Manifesto
Families will also get all the support they need in a seamless integrated system through the encouragement of co-location.
“We will encourage local services to co-locate, so that they work together to shift from sticking plaster solutions to integrated early help.” – Labour Manifesto
As mentioned in our pamphlet, ‘Sure Start, Sure Future’, locating services such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and JobcentrePlus within Children’s Centres will provide an enhanced service for families, bring more people into the Centres and generate potential financial savings.
A look at the Conservative and Labour manifestos reveils a clear choice for families at the election in May: Labour is the only party committed to families from pregnancy to adulthood, to social mobility and to Sure Start Children’s Centres across our country.
“The Labour manifesto outlines a bright future for our Children’s Centres. The Tory manifesto doesn’t even mention Sure Start. That really says it all.” – Michael Pavey, Director of Labour Friends of Sure Start.