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Big reform, not big spending, will save Sure Start

When funding is tight, we need a shift away from sticking plaster services to radical early intervention. 

When funding is tight, we need a shift away from sticking plaster services to radical early intervention.
The Dingle Sure Start Centre in Liverpool.

Sure Start children’s centres are one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government. The ethos and spirit of Sure Start are at the heart of Labour’s vision for a society where no child is forgotten and every family has the support they need to succeed. Valued by parents, children and communities alike, this transformational service has given a generation a better start.

Before the 2010 election, David Cameron promised to protect Sure Start. Yet at best they have withered on the vine. Analysis of responses to Labour Party FOI requests I’ve unveiled today show that there ae 628 fewer centres since 2010. In addition, one in ten children’s centres provides fewer services, one in six has seen a reduction in hours and one in five has fewer staff than 2010. 

Sure Start is intrinsic to Labour values of giving every child the best start and for putting early intervention at the heart of public service reform. Children’s centres are part of the fabric of family life for so many. Yet under the Tories their future is precarious and under threat. That’s why we will renew our commitment to Sure Start through reforming how services are delivered and prioritised.

This vision will enhance the Sure Start mission to support all families whilst focusing specialist services on the individual needs of families and children. We will develop new guiding principles which will instil this vision.

When funding is tight, we need a shift away from sticking plaster services to radical early intervention which allows local areas to tackle the root causes of problems in their communities, freeing families from disadvantage and giving them the tools to build strong families and fulfil the aspirations they have for their children. This shift in culture and policy requires leadership at the centre and locally, however, and this is something the current government are failing to provide. It’s clear from their lack of policy and focus on Sure Start that ministers are content to let the programme wither away.

So the choice on Sure Start is clear - if Sure Start is to continue providing quality support and services to families across the country, we need a government that will make it a policy priority and provide direction. This means working closely with local areas and learning the lessons from places that are managing to reshape what they offer when money is tight.

Places like Manchester are undertaking this radical reform and delivering results. Through their innovation we know that the future of Sure Start can be about big reform, not big spending – but this will only happen if we work together to deliver this step-change in services. Allowing for local variation, building in flexibility to meet the very different needs of different local authority areas, but working under a shared objective of strengthening Sure Start so future generations can benefit from this unique, progressive and invaluable service.  

Data sharing, joint working, assertive outreach and robust interventions based on strong local leadership are all key to delivering a better start for children. Building on the work of Labour’s local government innovation taskforce we will work with local areas to build a stronger Sure Start. This work will be based on key principles to underpin a renewed and reinvigorated offer for parents and children which will focus on:

- Getting more from our Sure Start centres: centres up and down the country are sitting idle because their services have been hollowed out. We should require them to open up to other local family services such as health and childcare. By asking services to cooperate in this way and "co-locating" them in one place we’ll ensure family services are more joined-up and we maximise the resource of Sure Start centre buildings, helping them to stay viable.

- New Family Hubs: by co-locating family services in centres we can create family hubs in the community, giving parents a convenient single point of access, reaching more families and strengthening the role of centres locally. 

- Effective early intervention: centres will focus on ensuring effective early help and outreach so problems can be spotted early and families and children can receive the support they need to overcome material, physical and emotional problems. This will help save funding on "sticking plaster" services down the line.

Sure Start will be at the heart of our efforts to reform public services to shift from crisis intervention to early intervention. Children’s Centres are vital to Labour’s mission to reduce inequality, boost social mobility and narrow the gap between the most vulnerable and the rest. Under this government Sure Start is in danger of failing. Labour in office will reinvigorate it for families now and in the future.