On the 18th of April, a packed room and an excellent panel sat together to discuss innovative ways we can keep Sure Start children centres alive during these harsh austerity measures, and launch a “There is always an alternative” which would serve as a call to action.
We were joined by; Yvette Cooper MP, Jenny Chapman MP, Cllr Gary See, Cllr Mark Rusling, Unison representative Ben Thomas, Shadow Childcare Minister Sharon Hodgson MP and the chair of the event, Cllr Michael Pavey.
Yvette Cooper spoke first and consistently referred to the Centres as ‘revolutionary’. She noted that it was ‘the first time welfare for under fives was taken seriously’ and it cut through bureaucracy, putting services in one easy-to-find centre. It also ‘put family at the heart of services’, ensuring that these centres work around, and for, the family. One of Labours core tenets is to bridge the gap of inequality, and these centres do exactly that, whilst remaining universal. Yvette then finished her segment by announcing that we ‘don’t want to look back and say SS (Sure Start) was just a moment’, even indicating that it would be great to form a similar model aimed at teenagers.
Jenny Chapman followed by providing a first-hand account of her use of SS centres and how without such networks and support in place she isn’t sure how she would have coped. These centres are about ‘more than helping children develop but about putting families on the right path for a good future’. It is because of this that we ‘cant put a price tag on the services provided’ – one of the very few services aimed at young children. Jenny’s personal and emotive talk helped remind us all of the sorts of ways we have seen SS help those whom are most in need; she reminded us that sometimes the stories get lost in the data.
We heard how OFSTED reports show that centres in Labour run constituencies are more likely to have an ‘outstanding’ rating whereas Tory led regions tend to be ‘inadequate’. This suggests that Labour take better care of SS than Conservatives.
Councillors Gary See and Mark Rusling then took to the floor. Gary’s council in Knowsley has been incredibly successful, actually expanding SS centres. He said this comes down to a few things: Keeping control local, having a large amount of volunteer workers (young mums, grandparents) which allowed paid workers to really focus on those who need support the most, and operating via slogans, one of which stood out: ‘children centres should be the first stop for children and young people’. Abiding to this principle, the people of Knowsley feel it is their duty to keep these centres running smoothly and effectively.
Mark then weighed in expressing his shock when he had his child and realised that once the midwife leaves there is next to no contact with the state for almost four years until the child begins school. This is why SS centres are hugely important and Mark summed up the importance of SS centres when he explained – ‘this is very political as it is about the language of priorities’ -you show your priorities when you show where you choose to spend your money.
Mark proceeded to give us his three-point argument for why it is absolutely essential to keep SS alive;
1. fiscal – If we don’t save these centres then five years down the line there will be more children on protection plans and a budget we absolutely cannot fix.
2. economic – There is a clear link between children whom attend SS and learn basic skills before school ending up going to further education, achieve more and get good careers. Keeping open centres should be seen as part of a long-term economic development plan as children will earn more, pay more taxes and stay in their own borough.
3. moral – ‘this doesn’t need saying… but if we are failing the next generation then why are we in politics?… keeping open SS centres is an absolute body blow against the old fashioned way of doing things’.
Gary shocked and impressed the crowd with an innovative way in which Knowsley have managed to save money and provide great services, “This can be pretty hard to palate; We provide much of our services from a local Tesco… Families said they shop there every day and would like to use it.” he explained how play services etc were provided and Tesco do not charge. An interesting strategy thought up by the community whereby everyone can continue to receive great services in a way convenient to them, needless to say this created a buzz around the room!
Finally, Sharon Hodgson wrapped up the evening with a short speech explaining how children centres offer facilities that are far more than ‘just a care service’ and senior politicians failed to realise it.
An insightful and innovative evening of sharing ideas, passion and concerns whereby people from all over the country came together. Whilst I view this event as a success, it is more important to ensure we take away with us and seek to implement or adapt these ideas into our own constituency.
Sharon gave us a frightening statistic before we left “labour areas have faced cuts for 6 years and the tory councils have only just begun facing cuts… yet tories shut 42% and labour 36/38%”. This suggests that there are rough roads ahead for SS and we most certainly need everybody unifying to find solutions to the dismantling of one of the greatest achievements of our last Labour government.
Mehdi Azmayesh, LFoSS Researcher.
We are very grateful to our friends at Unison for their support for There is always an alternative.