Read Part 1 here
Matt Foster looks at the uncertain future of Sure Start children’s centres and speaks to Louise King, founder of the ‘No Cuts for Kids’ campaign:
“They are the hub of the community,” King argues. “Children from all walks of life mix together. They’re a great leveler in society where our children can learn about and appreciate diversity. Without them, our kids have no safe places to play, and we have no source of support with all the issues around parenting.”
King’s take on the unique benefits of Sure Start is supported by the findings of the cross-party Select committee on Children, Schools & Families which reported before the 2010 general election that the locally tailored, decentralised nature of Sure Start Centres had, in “many areas… successfully cut through the silos that so often bedevil public service delivery”.
…a substantial investment with a sound rationale…
Centres are allowed to spend their money as they see fit, provided they maintain certain core services, making them a strong example of the kind of localism the government claims it wants to see more of. The Committee went on to praise Sure Start as “a substantial investment with a sound rationale,” and argued that it was “vital that this investment is allowed to bear fruit over the long term”.
The future of Sure Start seemed bright when David Cameron, then in Opposition, praised the “emotional support” offered by the programme and promised that “Sure Start will stay and we will improve it”. This denied the Labour party a major ‘dividing line’ with the Tories at the election and seemed to suggest that, alongside the ring-fencing of NHS and International Development budgets, a more compassionate conservatism was on the cards, even in the face of large spending cuts.
…plans to give local councils more say over how their budgets were spent caused real alarm…
In the Emergency Budget passed just after the government came to power, Chancellor George Osborne again pledged that funding for Sure Start services would be protected in cash terms, although with a disclaimer that the “programme [would] be refocused on its original purpose”. The government also pledged to deliver 4,000 more health visitors allied with Sure Start centres. The devil, however, was in the detail, and while campaigners at the time welcomed the decision to continue support for Sure Start in principle, the coalition’s plans to give local councils more say over how their budgets were spent caused real alarm.
In principle, the government’s reforms give greater freedom to local councils, but critics see the changes as a double-edged sword when combined with front-loaded cuts in overall expenditure by central government. While the government has argued that the requisite reductions can be made by cutting bureaucracy and without hitting frontline services, some councils, including Louise King’s own, have already begun wielding the axe in the direction of the no-longer-protected Early Intervention Grant, which covers Sure Start.
…In one room were children from six months to seven years old…
“I was at my local children’s centre when the Early Years cuts were announced,” she recalls. “The staff had been put on notice indefinitely and were visibly upset, not to mention embarrassed and ashamed that they couldn’t answer our questions or confirm that our centre had a future. In one room were children from six months to seven years old, some disabled, single mums, single dads, grandparents, carers, highly experienced and caring staff, posters about forthcoming activities and opportunities. Overnight it was all about to disappear.”
King worries that a trend is emerging whereby central government “gets away with things by devolving power” to local councils, who in turn blame central government for imposing cuts in the first place. This, she argues, ends up result blurring the lines of accountability and muting opposition.
Images courtesy of Sure Start, David Cameron and George Osborn