Leadership Candidate Mary Creagh writes on Children’s Centres

Sure Start transforms lives forever. It is one of Labour’s greatest ever achievements and it is under brutal attack by the Tories. Labour Friends of Sure Start believes that the future of our Children’s Centres should be a key issue in this Leadership contest. So we wrote to every candidate for Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party asking their vision for Sure Start. We are publishing their responses this week. Today it is the turn of Mary Creagh.

From 2005 to 2011 I visited my local Sure Start centre every day of the week. At that centre the children found deep friendship, healthy eating, good manners, firm boundaries and moments of wild joy. I credit the Centre’s “large scale messy play”  -an activity where the babies were stripped to their vests and sat in warm paddling pools of custard, pasta, and coloured cornflour, for making my daughter a fearless eater.  I learned that “heuristic play” aka junk modelling, was a great way to recycle the recycling. A qualified teacher taught those children who were ready, to read and write before they started school. I shared the joys, exhaustion and solidarity of parenthood with other new mums as we tried baby signing, baby massage and aerobics together.  And “graduation day” was a moment of intense pride and celebration as we looked back at their progress from babyhood and thanked the staff who cuddled them to sleep, brought them T shirts from holidays and told them they were special every day.

Sure Start meant my children were nurtured alongside children who were disabled, fostered or on the “at risk” register. Some children disappeared overnight, presumably removed by social services. The centre catered for young mums, Bangladeshi and Somali mums and, importantly provided a space for dads to play too.  I saw first hand what I already knew to be true -that some families really struggled to do the best for their children.  And that a universal service meant we and our children were all treated the same and fostered community solidarity.

We in the Labour party know that inequality starts before birth -which is why we introduced the health in pregnancy grant, so low income mums didn’t have to chose between a healthy diet in pregnancy and a pram for their baby.  That disappeared in George Osborne’s first budget.  We in the Labour party believe in investing to prevent social problems rather than dealing with the consequences of them. I passionately believe that what we wish for our own children we should wish for every child.

David Cameron has broken his promises on Sure Start. There are 720 fewer Sure Start centres nationally. In Wakefield, 11 of our 23 Sure start centres will close this year. Wakefield’s Early Intervention Grant has been cut from £18.4m in 2010/11 to £10.8m in 2013/14.  That’s a 45% cut since 2010, although the number of families falling into poverty has risen.  The Sure Start buildings attached to schools will be put to good use as Wakefield faces a school places crisis. Wakefield’s service is being reshaped to focus on poor families.  But any parent can suffer post natal depression, struggle to breastfeed or control a toddler with learning difficulties, no matter how much they earn. Universality removes stigma and places those parents needing help alongside those parents who want help – a subtle difference.

At the General Election we promised to deliver an extra 50 000 child care places through Sure Start. We are not in power nationally but we run councils across the country and we need to learn from their experience. Islington Council’s model of placing childcare at the heart of Surestart helped protect it from the ravages of the Tory cuts.  Labour Councils will need to find new ways of protecting Sure Start services, partnering with others to provide family focused community hubs with affordable childcare at their heart.   High quality nursery provision must be at the heart of Sure Start, if we are to encourage parents into work, lift children from poverty and ensure Britain in 2020 is a country where no child is left behind.

Photo source: http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/mary-creagh/1579

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