LFoSS held an event dedicated to children’s centres. We had great line-up of speakers who were MPs, campaigners, and representatives from UNISON and 4children. Speakers expressed their concern about the up and coming review into children’s centres and the increasingly prevalent hub and spoke approach. They also put forward many ideas such as using the health budget to help finance the best practices, devolving responsibility to local authorities and creating independent institutions so that the political cycle can’t destroy things like Sure Start. Speakers also urged the defenders of Sure Start to work together; share their experiences and take part in the consultation on Children’s Centres.
Ben Thomas started off the session making a series of very important points concerning centres. The first was about the quality of debates around Sure Start. He notes that “many of the debates in parliament seem to be characterised by arguments about the numbers of closures, arguments about the number of people using those services, not the question of the impact of cuts on the children and families. And there’s mainly transference of blame on local authorities for those cuts that are taking place.” Any look through Hansard or through comments in online articles and the pattern of selective figures and the parcelling of blame by Conservative education ministers quickly becomes clear.
Ben also called for a review into the increasingly prevalent hub and spoke approach. Councils have been able to keep centres open and save money by converting main centres into spoke or satellite sites with reduced managers, services or opening hours. However, Ben declared “I think it suits politicians in that they can deny the amount of closures that are taking place; it maybe suits local politicians in that they too can say that we’re not closing centres. But what’s really happening with the hub and spoke model… is we’re getting conflicting and deluded service in those centres, rather than the vision of high quality early intervention and provision that Sure Start was all about.”
Conversely, Ben expressed concern about the review called for by Sam Gyimah and the figures from Ofsed ‘coincidently’ made on the same day. “Where you are seeing constant restructuring, you’re seeing constant cuts, you’re seeing an uncertain future, you’re seeing services delivered on diminished resources with a greater number of families needing support from Sure Start centres – it’s no surprise that centres are under strain.”
Lastly, he discussed the movement away from early education and intervention towards getting parents back into work, describing the policy of 30 hours of free childcare as “a redirection of resources away from the idea of the provision of early education, improving the life chances, improving the educational outcomes for children.” He added “that was very much the aim of government policy; it was centred around the child and not around getting families back into the workforce.”
Graham Allen put forward a bold plan to secure Sure Start in the long run, to build something “that the political cycle doesn’t destroy.” He argued that “if you leave this sort of stuff with our massively over-centralised state, you are leaving it in a permanent state of risk therefore I think our philosophy has to change. I think you do it through two very strong philosophical ideas, one is devolution and the other is early intervention.”
According to Graham, Labour should be pushing for devolution, “where local government and indeed national government is separated from the federal level; in other words it is secure.” The reasoning being “if you’ve got local governance which is established like local government in virtually every other democracy as an independent institution it can start to look after Sure Start and indeed many other things.”
He added “another thing we need to do is create institutions throughout the UK that have a life separate from government, so that no government minister can write an article in Nursery World or whatever and start the slippery slope to abolition.” He put forward the interesting idea of independent institutions that have their own endowment, such as a “what works centre purely for Sure Start but not in the pocket of a government minister or secretary of state.”
Lastly, Graham discussed early intervention. He advocated that Labour should be putting forward early intervention as a way to “help every baby, child and young person develop social and emotional capability” and as an economic concept saving billions to the public.
We were joined by Tristram Hunt on the day who pledged to oppose the government’s misallocation of priorities and make sure that where the Labour party is in power, it is providing innovative ways to protect early year’s provision. He stated:
“I think one of the strong messages has to be – we’re not in power in Westminster but we are in power in Wales, we are in power in numerous local authorities, we will be in power in some powerful combined authorities if the devolution agenda grows over the next few years, and those are exactly areas where the Labour can deliver the change, the Labour party can continue to build on this essential part of what we delivered when we we’re in government.”
This is a powerful message, one which says Labour authorities need to be working together and doing all we can now to protect the Sure Start infrastructure, as opposed to waiting for a Labour government to come in in 5 years and save it.
Tristram also spoke about the government’s clear misallocation of resources based on evidence.
“To my mind one of the most important things I’ve read recently is a very brilliant book by the American politic scientist Robert Putnam called ‘Our Kids’, and it is an account of essentially stalled social mobility in America… and out of this he comes up with two very powerful points. Which is that if you’re interested in challenging inequality, if you’re interested in challenging disadvantage – the two areas you really focus your investment on is early year’s provision and post 16 technical and vocational education.
And those are the two areas where the government have decided to leave spending unprotected within the Department for Education. So they’re going to protect the schools budget, they’re going to protect 5-16 even though that will suffer a 9% cut over the parliament, but the absolutely vital areas of tackling inequality and disadvantage they decided to deliver between 15-20% cuts.”
Tristram added “to deliver the kind of assault that we’re going to see on early year’s provision and Sure Start is absolutely crazy so we will be, and Sharon will lead on this, opposing that misallocation of priorities.”
Pulling from her experience as leader of Islington council Catherine West spoke about best practices, and how councils can boost their finances by exploiting the link between health and Sure Start.
She highlighted that the evidence around the universal provision of Sure Start shows that for a lot of women, “once they get together with other women, be that in the antenatal years or in the first 6-12 months of their first baby’s birth, that crucial network which they developed then carries them right through till their children get to secondary school. In other words “the educational knowledge which they’re getting from professionals” combined with “the peer support which they’re getting from each other carries them through those really difficult years.”
Catherine also pointed out that if local authorities could “try and use a little bit of the funding around public health or the NHS, we might be able to preserve some of that best practice around antenatal care, the educative value of it, [and] peer group support.” Catherine reiterated that we know in the Autumn the Tories will come back for more cuts to local authorities, so it is vital that we try and see whether there is anything within that acute or public health budget which could keep those vital networks going.
Catherine also highlighted that many local authorities have been able to maintain Sure Start buildings but not the services, and pitched the suggestion of community groups running services out of those Sure Start centres which still remain. Stating “where we can be a little bit innovative and find a case for community services within the locality, within the neighbourhood, whatever’s left, try and get that together and maintain that excellence which we did have under the Labour approach.”
Helen Berresford from 4children spoke about integrating services and creating hubs that have a variety of services that work around families.
“We advocate that with Sure Start, it’s been really good at starting to integrate services but actually there’s so much potential to do more, to link in. I would say, actually, let’s bring other services through the Sure Start, through the hub model to actually integrate services around children, so you can start to bring that together. Where you don’t want to get to… is you don’t want to get to a point where Sure Start just becomes a nursery, or it just becomes one of their services, that’s not how it works, that’s not what there for, but actually once you start coordinating, collocating and bring services together around families actually you do start to make much better use of children’s centres.”
For more information about this model please visit the 4children website and see their policy on Children and Family Hubs.
Charlotte Brady, a Sure Start user and campaigner, discussed how she managed to keep her local centre open, explaining: “the reason it worked was because we were a team, so there was the Labour councillors, there was local trade unionists and parents, and between us we managed to get enough momentum, enough publicity and enough will to keep them alive, and there was quite a bit of creative thinking as to the solutions involved as well.”
She delivered an important message which was to keep centres open campaigners and councillors need to share experiences, “MPs [also] have a great opportunity because they tend to attract people with cameras to do more in their local areas and to turn up to open days, to go along and to really celebrate the success that is children centres.”
Charlotte ended by asking all to “think about how individually we can do more in our local communities to raise awareness of challenges Sure Start faces, raise awareness of the difficulties, but also what we can do collectively, so how we can pool our resources and ask what we can actually practically do to make a difference.” Insisting “the way to secure the long term future, is to build, work together [and] share ideas.”
The discussion was closed by Sharon Hodgson who urged everyone to take part in the up and coming consultation into Children Centres.
“Yesterday we had the Childcare Minister Sam, announce a new consultation on Children’s Centres he says ‘to understand the impact of these centres around the country and whether or not they are helping families in the way that was intended’… he goes on to say… he felt that ‘not enough centres were good or outstanding.’”
Sharon made the observation that perhaps “at least 35% of budgets cuts might have something to do with that,” and “that perhaps it’s his policies, and policies of his predecessors and the Conservative government that have done such damage to Children’s centres – wasting perhaps the most vital resource that we have to boost the life chances of children from every community.”
She added “it’s our job now as outlined to make sure that each and every member of the government realise the error of their ways.” Urging all to “take part in the consultation, encourage all your friends and colleagues to take part in the consultation” in order “to ensure these centres get the funding that they require and more funding if possible not just the skeleton funding we’re getting now and that parents get the support they need and that children get the services they deserve.”