An unsure footing

Doreen Massey on government cluelessness on the impact of cuts to early years services

Sure Start centres were set up as a Labour flagship programme under the late Tessa Jowell to support young children and their families, in order to provide a good basis for educational and social outcomes. They were developed in deprived areas and then rolled out to deliver play sessions, parenting support and help advise on education, health and employment. They mirrored the concept that a positive early years’ experience is vital to a healthy and happy childhood and to cognitive development.

Parents have variously described the centres as a “lifeline”, reducing isolation and giving practical advice. They were within “pram pushing distance” and served local communities. Many evaluations of effectiveness have shown the centres to have improved home learning environments via baby health programmes and child play services. Parent support programmes and social development initiatives have also been shown to be effective.

Despite positive outcomes and support from communities, Sure Start centres have suffered closures. As a Sutton Trust report shows, up to 1,000 have closed since 2009. Others have had a name change and are now called ‘hubs’, with Oxfordshire for example last year setting up 19 of the latter to replace the previous 44 centres. 

Other local authorities are proposing similar measures but such hubs are often not within ‘pram pushing’ distance. And these do not always just serve children and families, as they extend to other social services. They are also not necessarily open for the long periods which previous centres were. As there is no evidence to suggest that this reconfiguration of the centres provides better services, how can Ministers ensure good provision for young children in this mixed delivery of services?

When Sure Start centres were established, Ofsted inspected service quality and outcomes for young people, encouraging high quality provision and meeting diverse needs. Statutory guidance issued in 2013 recognised the importance of quality in improving outcomes for children and identified inspection as vitally importance to accountability. In 2015, the Department for Education announced that a new cycle of inspections should not begin as changes to existing arrangements were likely to be made.

A consultation on the future of children’s centres was announced but the date of this consultation has not yet been announced and inspections are on hold. Around 1,000 centres have not been inspected for over five years. So how can the government identify and encourage shared good practice? More importantly, how will it know how, indeed if, those most in need are being served?

Cuts to council budgets have hit many authorities hard. In the subsequent balancing of priorities, children’s services are suffering. So too are those vital experiences which contribute to social mobility.

Ministers say they are serious about improving life chances, particularly of children from deprived areas. But the opportunities to both help families become more stable and develop young children’s social, emotional and intellectual development have been reduced. Something made worse by the fact that the government is clueless over how, and to what standards, services are being delivered.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer

Published 11th July 2018

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