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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.