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How Labour can come to the rescue of Sure Start

The revolutionary power of early intervention is now comprehensively proven. Labour needs to put Sure Start at the heart of its plans to enthuse a weary electorate.

New Statesman
A Sure Start centre in Long Stratton in Norfolk.

Sure Start is Labour’s greatest achievement since Attlee. It is an unqualified success story and a historic achievement. Until 1997, Britain had a miserable record in both early years investment and early intervention. Sure Start was the flagship in a programme of initiatives which turned the tide of neglect. It was an act of social reform and political courage comparable with the founding of the NHS. 

But while for decades the Conservative Party was terrified to make a full frontal assault on the NHS, it has got stuck into Sure Start immediately. Over 500 Sure Start Centres have closed since 2010, budgets have been cut by 40 per cent and more than a fifth of Sure Start workers have lost their jobs.

Even worse, the Conservatives have rejected the founding principle of Sure Start: that childcare and family support are inseparable partners in effective early years development. Instead, they have recast the early years in solely utilitarian, economic terms: childcare is little more than a route to parental employment.

If Sure Start is to survive we must reframe this debate. Labour Friends of Sure Start was founded this year to campaign for our children’s centres and to shape the debate about their future. Today we are delighted to be launching an e-pamphlet - Sure Start, Sure Future – as a springboard for this debate. The purpose of the pamphlet is to proudly reaffirm the need for Sure Start and to start outlining what it might look like under a 2015 Labour government. With contributions from Stephen Twigg MP, Polly Toynbee, Fiona Millar, Graham Allen MP, Melissa Benn, Sharon Hodgson MP and others, three key themes emerge from Sure Start, Sure Future.

A vision for Sure Start

Sure Start is still standing, but it has been buffeted and bruised in recent years. We need to rejuvenate the original Sure Start spirit. We need to reinvigorate what Polly Toynbee calls "one of the 1997 Government’s most permanently transformative successes." Labour needs to proudly place the transformative power and the human idealism of Sure Start at the heart of its plans to enthuse a weary electorate.

A universal offer must be at the heart of Sure Start

Universalism is going out of fashion. Faced with the omnipresent "difficult decisions" of austerity, limiting subsidies for the relatively wealthy is understandably attractive. But as Fiona Millar argues, "Families move in and out of risky situations and there are times when all of us need help and support. If there is any service that should be universal and non-stigmatizing, it is this one."

Sure Start centres are the ideal infrastructure for early intervention

The revolutionary power of early intervention is now comprehensively proven. The work of Graham Allen MP and others shows beyond doubt that investing before a child is two-years-old transforms lives and saves money. But early intervention requires a strong infrastructure to be truly effective. Sure Start is trusted by families and its effectiveness in breaking down silos is proven. This makes it the ideal infrastructure through which to channel early intervention investment.

These are the three key themes in Sure Start, Sure Future. In response, Labour Friends of Sure Start is making three broad policy suggestions.

Sure Start as childcare plus

250 Sure Start nurseries have closed – mostly in the deprived areas which desperately need them. This loss of capacity is jeopardising the extension of free nursery places and is condemning disadvantaged families to poor quality provision.

We suggest that Sure Start should have an expanded role in childcare provision. But that this provision must be enriched by integrated family support services. As Cllr. Catherine West puts it: "children thrive, in part, because their family thrives."

Control costs by limiting remits, not closing centres

Sure Start will face acute financial challenges for the foreseeable future. Labour should consider controlling costs by doing less in Sure Start centres – but doing it better. In the words of Claire McCarthy from 4Children, "it is possible to target services at a smaller number of outcomes that the evidence shows can have the biggest difference."

Sure Start centres as community hubs

We strongly support co-locating services such as Citizens Advice Bureaus and JobcentrePlus within children’s centres. This will provide an enhanced service for families, bring more people into the centres and generate financial savings by closing other buildings. We believe this is win:win. In fact, we would go further and encourage Labour to explore models for Sure Start co-operatives to maximise community involvement.

There is a huge amount of work to be done on all these ideas. But for now we are seeking comments from everyone with a passion for Sure Start. Please come along to the launch of Sure Start, Sure Future this evening (2 July) in Portcullis House to share your views.

Sure Start is special. It is trusted and it is loved. Across the country, communities are campaigning to save their Sure Start centres. We must offer them hope that a Labour government will not only protect Sure Start, but will develop and strengthen it. We need to proudly reclaim the Sure Start vision and place it at the very heart of our plans for a One Nation Britain. We hope that this pamphlet is a step towards reviving that vision and giving it renewed relevance for 2015.

Michael Pavey is Director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and Lead Member for Children & Families on Brent Council.

Sure Start, Sure Future is being launched at 6pm today in the Wilson Room, Portcullis House, Westminster. All are very welcome. For more information please visit www.laboursurestart.com or email laboursurestart@gmail.com