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.

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

A Sure Start centre in Long Stratton in Norfolk.

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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war