Take your partners

At the heart of the Sure Start vision for a revolution in
services for families with young children is the principle that
parents should have real influence over what services are provided
and how they are run. The Hartcliffe, Highridge and Withywood
programme in Bristol is one of the success stories. Debbie Bailey,
a mother of four and parent representative on the Sure Start board
since 1999, believes there has been genuine power-sharing between
staff and parents. She says: “At first, with the professionals, it
felt like them and us. But they have broken down the barriers and
really listen to your point of view.”

As well as participating in the strategic development of the
programme and in key management functions like agreeing budgets and
appointing staff, Bailey has also been involved in setting up a
breastfeeding support group. The group receives referrals from
midwives and a breastfeeding counsellor employed by Sure Start.
Bailey explains: “People talk to you differently when you’re
not a professional. You’ve been through similar problems and
they can identify with that. We’ve already achieved the
breastfeeding target. It’s surprising how many people are
breastfeeding now.”

Bailey acknowledges that working with professionals has not
always been easy. “At first the midwives were worried that we were
taking over their patch. They thought we wouldn’t back them
up and might offer conflicting advice. Now they are on board and we
do sessions together.”

In other areas the experience has been less positive for parents
wanting to participate. Cathy Burns, a mother of two living in
north east London says parents have found it an uphill struggle to
influence the development of local Sure Start services. She is
secretary of the parents’ group, the very existence of which
was initially opposed by the local Sure Start partnership board.
She says: “They are always on the back foot. They’ve done
nothing to build capacity and bring more people in. There’s
been no training for parents.”

Even though Burns is one of only two parents who regularly
attend board meetings, they are frequently held on the one day in
the week when she is not able to be there. “Once, they put on a
lunch and seven parents came. The next time there was no lunch and
people didn’t come. The attitude [of Sure Start
professionals] was, ‘Oh, we didn’t realise you wanted a
lunch every time.’ Unless you keep on at them nothing

Naomi Eisenstadt, head of the Sure Start Unit, agrees that the
picture is mixed. She says: “The main barrier to parent
participation is resistance by professionals to engage honestly
with what it’s all about. The best [Sure Start] staff can
negotiate across the spectrum. But we’ve got our share of
programmes that are having great difficulties. There have been
under 10 in that really dreadful category.” She explains that the
unit has a process of twice yearly programme risk assessment for
every programme so Sure Start regional staff can put more time into
those that need it.

With local social services as lead agency, the early months in
Burns’s local Sure Start were such a disaster that lead
agency status was handed over to a local voluntary agency. However,
this failed to resolve many of the problems. Burns is also
sceptical about how effective the interventions of the Sure Start
Unit have been. She says: “They just don’t want to know. The
regional co-ordinator turns up at meetings and ticks boxes saying
there has been parental involvement when there hasn’t. If you
try to raise things with her she just goes into government

Ruth Kennedy, programme manager of Northwood Sure Start in
Knowsley, has found that the technical and at times bureaucratic
work of the partnership board makes it difficult to draw in
parents. As a round 3 Sure Start programme Northwood is still at
the stage of developing services. Kennedy says: “There are a couple
who have stayed the course but it’s hard to get people onto
management committees. I don’t want to treat parents like
token people. A lot of the work involves very formal reports.”

“Consultation fatigue” is a problem in some programmes. Kennedy
explains: “The area has had a lot of external funding allocated and
there have been so many attempts at consultation. Some people feel
they’ve been consulted to death. Groups like tenants’
associations get consulted all the time but people like teenage
mums and victims of domestic violence haven’t had a voice

Centrally imposed bureaucracy is another potential barrier to
parental involvement, as Eisenstadt acknowledges. She asks: “How do
you balance a sense of taking parents seriously with ensuring money
is well spent? I have concerns about keeping a clear focus on
better outcomes for children and I can’t put my hand on my
heart and say every penny has been well spent. The whole programme
would collapse if we tried to do that. We do a lot of monitoring
but the more we do it the more we get tied up in bureaucracy.”

Central bureaucracy may be compounded by red tape imposed by
local partners. Particularly in areas where there is little
tradition of community participation, local politicians and council
officers find it hard to let go of control and share decision
making with parents.

Despite the difficulties, there are signs that the old ways of
providing services – professionals and planners deciding what
services are provided, how, and for whom, with little or no
reference to the users themselves – are beginning to change.
In five years or so, when most of the programmes have been wound
up, the key test will be whether Sure Start has had a lasting
impact on the delivery of mainstream services.

For Eisenstadt, parental involvement is crucial because it
changes the way professionals think about service users.
“I’ve always felt that having parents on boards was symbolic.
It’s the beginning of parental involvement and not the end.
What’s most important is that it develops in professionals a
sense that they don’t talk about users as if they’ve
got three heads. Once there is a user in the room the way
professionals talk changes.”

Martin Manby, director of the Nationwide Children’s
Research Centre at Huddersfield University, is on the partnership
board of Thornhill Sure Start in Kirklees and is local evaluator
for the Bramley programme in Leeds. He believes Sure Start has
genuinely changed the terms of engagement between parents and local
agencies. “Parents have a different role in relation to Sure Start
than they have enjoyed in relation to health, education and social
services,” he says. “There is a lot of good practice. I’ve
got examples of excellent relationships with health visitors who
see Sure Start as an opportunity for better engagement with the
local community. People who have been brought in [to work on Sure
Start] have a very strong commitment to empowerment.”

Manby shares Eisenstadt’s view that parent representation
on partnership boards, while vital, is only part of the story. He
points to other ways in which parents can shape services, as
volunteers and as paid workers as well as through consultation.
Many programmes employ local parents as child care and community
development workers or as researchers – an effective means of
building local capacity and ensuring that Sure Start is strongly
rooted in the community.

Even Burns agrees that there has been progress. She says:
“Things have moved forward. At first there was no place for us in
the structure. They don’t ignore parents anymore.”

Kennedy believes it is too early to assess progress. “We try all
the time to widen people’s outlook and get them to think
about where users are coming from. I can pinpoint improvements in
the flexibility with which for example health visitors and library
services are working. But culture change takes a long time.” Her
concern, shared by Eisenstadt, is that in the brave new world of
integrated child care, early years and Sure Start provision, the
hard-won progress in working with the community should not be

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