Children’s Centres: breaking the last New Labour taboo (part 1)
On Sunday night I went to a Labour conference fringe meeting about the future of early years childcare and early years development. The participants were Kitty Usher, ex-MP and now Director of Demos, John Merry, leader of Salford City Council and an MP whose name escapes me for the moment, and who arrived late and didn’t really say very much at all.
The usual happened. The chair, a journalist called Gabby Hinsliff, repeatedly and almost pointedly ignored my hand in the air, and instead sought contributions from the heads of organisations who already get to have their say about this kind of stuff all the time; as a result, not a single deliverer of either childcare or parenting support services (I am both) got to speak about the reality ‘on the ground’.
But heh, that’s fringe meetings. Let’s talk about Children’s Centres.
Ed Miliband will be speaking to Labour conference later, and if I know Labour leader speeches as I think I do, Ed will make early and glowing reference to the 3,500 Children’s Centre/Sure Starts established under a Labour government. It’s top of the list of every Labour politician’s list of Labour achievements.
And so it was at the Labour fringe meeting dedicated to looking at the detail of childcare and early years development policy. Children’s Centres are good things, pure and simple, and they must be defended.
If I had been invited to speak at the love-in, though, I’d have said something different; I’d have broken the New Labour taboo.
For the reality of Children’s Centres, as they are really experienced by real people, can be very different from the picture painted by New Labour, and potentially by New Labour’s successors.
There are undoubtedly many Centres that have really worked well, and have met the needs of the middle class families AND have reached out to the ‘hard to reach’.
But there are also many that have not, and which have failed to deliver on their core task, and we need to face up to that fact, and explore why.
How can I be so sure of this when everyone else is going around telling us all Children’s Centres are wonderful?
Well, I’m sure not least because I personally wrote the bids which brought in the funding which set up an ‘alternative’ Children’s Centre, down the road from a ‘real’, well-funded Children’s Centre in my area, Skelmersdale in Lancashire.
The ‘real’ Children’s Centre is a place none of the people who needed it most went to, because they were not shown respect, and because they were treated as target fodder.
These same people now happily attend our place in a slightly crummy-looking annex to the Council Sports Hall (itself a converted factory), because we offer respect and work with families on the issues that face them rather than seeking to control them. We succeed because we do not stigmatize. The Children’s Centre staff now come to us for guidance, just 10 months after opening.
In part 2 of this taboo-breaker, I’ll be setting out some more thoughts on why, in some areas at least, Children’s Centres have failed to do what they should have done, despite the efforts of staff working with the best of intentions, what this says both about New Labour’s managerialism, and how Labour in opposition should and can now – as Ed Miliband is due to say this afternoon - to move on from the ‘old certainties’. These old certainties linger on, not least in what Kitty Usher had to say – some of which I found mildly disturbing – and I will also explore that.
In the meantime, this is some of what what I wrote in the funding bids that brought us the money to challenge the hegemonic orthodoxy that Children’s Centres are always great. It was written nearly 18 months ago, but I think it stands the test of time.
We will work with local families who are often defined by the statutory agencies with whom we work as ‘hard to reach’, though in fact this is not our experience; rather it is our experience that unable to reach out effectively to poorer and more isolated families, not least because many of these families feel ‘stigmatised’ by their association with such agencies.
Home-Start West Lancs has been established in the area for over 11 years during that time the organisation has worked with many ‘hard to reach’ families. Good relationships have been established, trust has been gained, and mutual respect has been earned.
It is our regrettable but inescapable experience – one which is a key driver for this project - that many families who would be regarded as ‘hard to reach’ by statutory agencies, principally those working through or in partnership with Sure Start and Children’s Centres, do not and will not engage with statutory services because they do not trust them. The necessary ‘form-filling’ associated with Children’s Centres is off-putting for many families living in difficult circumstances, and whatever the high quality of the ‘offer’ provided by Children’s Centres, many families do not feel they can engage with the whole process because they feel stigmatised (or have a perception that they would be in some way stigmatised).
On occasion, in this area of Skelmersdale, such perceptions have been reinforced by the actuality of persistent ‘chasing’ phone calls from well-meaning staff at the Children’s Centre, eager to ensure registration and attendance, partly with a view to meeting core ‘reach’ targets. Such methods are understandable, but the evidence we have from our work with families in the Digmoor area [of Skelmersdale] is that they can be and have been counter-productive.
Home-Start does want to ensure that those families who might benefit from the range of services available from or via the range of statutory agencies operating in the area. Indeed, success in this is set out as one of our key outcomes (see above). In order to achieve this, ‘hard to reach’ parents and families need to initial support, of the type we will offer, to enable them to build the confidence and coping skills and that are often needed to engage with services on a more equal basis.
Home-Start West Lancashire operates somewhat differently from other Home-Start schemes under the UK umbrella organisation. While most organisations focus primarily (and reflecting the name) in home-based work, with volunteers visiting and providing support to parents who are having difficulty coping in their home surroundings, Home-Start West Lancashire has responded to the needs expressed by families, living in the most deprived areas of West Lancashire, for more holistic support and solidarity alongside other families, set alongside the development of basic skills in parenting and householding (e.g. cooking nutritious food on a tight budget, budget and debt management, routes towards employment). For this reason, Home-Start West Lancashire has started to weight its resources to group development and facilitation, and this will be at the core this proposed new project.
Essentially, we believe that Home-Start West Lancashire does not just ‘talk a good game’ about empowerment, but that we do it. Our staff and current volunteers are local people, and genuinely empathise with the situation in which our target families find themselves.
In summary, through ongoing engagement and consultation with other local agencies, both statutory and voluntary, but more importantly with local families bringing their experiences, we have identified a gap in provision, which if filled will both directly meet the needs of families but will also allow other agencies a better chance of engaging with families, because those families are able to do so on a more equal footing.
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