Home > General Politics > Four year late: the Sure Start taboo is broken

Four year late: the Sure Start taboo is broken

Almost of all the articles in Labourlist’s One Nation week have been either uninteresting pap, or quite interestingly wrong.

But this one by Duncan O’Leary from Demos, which seek to call time on the ‘Sure Start was absolutely brilliant for everyone’ myth so loved by New Labour die-hards, is quite good.  While I’d want to know more about Duncan’s ‘statecraft’ prescription for getting it right next time around, this bit is more or less right:

The focus on parenting and family relationships had given way [since the first phase] to a more straightforward desire to help parents into work. This was far less about relationships and far more about hitting GDP targets and lifting working parents out of material poverty. Thus family centres became children’s centres. Running parallel to this change of direction were changes in the way Surestart was run. As the programme was rolled out nationally local authorities took the lead, heralding an era in which grass-roots influence over the direction of centres would be diminished.  In part, this decision was made on cost grounds. It was hoped that local bureaucracies could run things more efficiently than local people. But the shift in governance arrangements also reflected a concern that the overriding goal of Surestart – ‘better outcomes for children, parents and communities’ – was not being met.

The shame is that it’s taken Labour and its think-thank coterie  so long to work this out.

Some four years ago, I wrote this in a bid for money to set up a parenting project in Skelmersdale:

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 the agencies are 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…..

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 occasions, 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.

That bid was successful, and the project – a mile from the Children’s Centre – has been so successful that the Children’s Centre has come to us for guidance.

At a policy level, we were ignored, or patronised. Or patronised, then ignored.

Two years ago, I attended a seminar at which Duncan’s boss, Kitty Ussher, told us how great Sure Start was.  I sat in the front row, and raised my hand to make the kind of points I had made above, and that Duncan now makes.  I was studiously ignored in favour of people she knew. I was so angry I wrote this blogpost about the need to end the Sure Start taboo.  It was ignored.

Two years later, it seems the taboo has been ended by Duncan.  Fair play to him.

But really, if Labour had listened to people at the grassroots in the first place…..

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