Sure Start and children’s centres: have ideals been compromised?

With the Pre-School Learning Alliance warning that most of its children’s centres are incurring unsustainable losses, Mark Hunter examines whether Sure Start has veered too far from the government’s original ideals

For the past five years learning and play charity Clowns has been engaging with difficult-to-reach families in rural West  Somerset. But now, the future of the services it runs on behalf of Sure Start isunder threat as the charity faces up to a halving of its £60,000 a year grant. At risk is the outreach van and playbus that travel to isolated families who cannot or do not attend the area’s four main Sure Start centres. Indeed, Clowns targets the very families that Sure Start has been criticised for failing to engage.

The mobile services that face the axe include health visitor clinics, individual family support, speech and language therapy, a toy library and “tumbling tot” sessions. It is a familiar pattern throughout England as the government rolls out its Sure Start children’s centres. The original flagship service – centrally funded and focusing on the most deprived communities – is gradually being  supplanted. Instead, local authorities have been given strategic responsibility to deliver children’s centres that will cover the entire country by 2010.

More than 1,000 children’s centres have opened, serving at least 800,000 children. Most Sure Start centres will be developed from the original settings and other existing providers, such as maintained nursery schools, primary schools and other local early years provision, including voluntary and private settings.

Although Sure Start has dramatically extended its reach, its funding per child has plummeted – from £2,500 in 1999 to just £250 today. Local authorities are expected to make up the shortfall by forming partnerships with other statutory agencies and the voluntary sector. Inevitably, there are concerns that the service is being spread too thinly and that high-quality projects, particularly those involving outreach services such as Clowns, will fall by the wayside.

“The government has been good at setting up these things, but they’ve not had the foresight to keep them going,” says Clowns project co-ordinator Kathy Morton. “I’ve nothing against children’s centres. But I’m worried that the money to run  them just isn’t going to be there. In our case, losing our funding will really affect what we do. We’ve had to stop the speech and language therapy and the health visitor is going to have to cut her hours. It’s a great shame because we’ve got the statistics to show that people really need this service.”

Morton’s fears have been echoed at a national level, not least by the pioneer of Sure Start himself. Norman Glass, who chaired the Treasury working group that proposed the original Sure Start in 1998, has lambasted the children’s centre programme for its “Scandinavian ambitions and British funding levels”. He also criticised the loss of autonomy as Sure Start programmes came under local authority control.

Community ownership of Sure Start, whereby local parents and centre staff sit on management boards, was a founding principle of the scheme to ensure that its services were never seen as intrusive. Many doubt whether this local involvement will survive under council control. Sue Dunstall, local government adviser at the NSPCC, says: “The guiding principles of Sure Start, that it should be communityled and that statutory agencies should take a back-seat role, are being compromised.

“Children’s centres are making use of the Sure Start brand but they are being managed in an entirely different way.” Dunstall points out that this loss of community involvement could further distance Sure Start from the most vulnerable families who need its services the most. Last November the national evaluation of Sure Start reported that many projects were  failing to engage with these most disadvantaged families. In response, children’s minister Beverley Hughes announced that every Sure Start children’s centre would be required to run a home visiting and outreach programme for parents of all new babies and evaluate the service they provide to the most disadvantaged groups.

However, Dunstall doubts whether children’s centres will be any better placed to reach these families than their Sure Start predecessors. “If Sure Start wasn’t reaching them with their community-led management boards I would be surprised if children’s centres were any more successful.”

The importance of outreach services in bringing these families into the Sure Start fold cannot be overstated yet these services are particularly vulnerable to budget cuts.

Jan Stoll, service development manager at children’s charity NCH, says: “It would be of particular concern if the outreach services were cut because that would have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable groups. There is that danger  because the unit costs are higher with these services.

But there’s a strong argument that they are cost-effective and that’s how the success of these projects should be measured, not just by the number of people coming through the door.”

Clearly, the key to whether children’s centres can successfully pick up where the original Sure Start left off is funding. Anne Longfield, chief executive of the charity 4Children, says funding children’s centres should not be a problem for those local authorities prepared to be creative in managing their budgets. However, she believes additional funds should be made available to ease the transition. 

“Local authorities need to be strategic and find ways to fund the centres from their mainstream budgets,” she says. “At the moment, in some areas services are being developed ahead of the council’s capacity to fund them. That is why we have been saying that local authorities need some extra transition funding for children’s services.”

Andy Elvin, project manager for children’s centres and extended schools at Richmond upon Thames Council, points out that it is not only up to local authorities to fund the new centres. In most cases it will be the strength of the partnerships that local authorities can form with other agencies that will determine how well the centres are funded.

“Most local authorities are prioritising children’s centres but this is only a part of the issue,” he says. “The PCTs, voluntary and community sectors, schools and police also need to be involved.” Indeed, Stoll believes that bringing Sure Start under local authority control will help it provide a more integrated and ultimately sustainable service. “This has the advantage of bringing it into the mainstream where it will be able to connect with other services and have access to other funding streams.”

As there will no longer be a single Sure Start budget, the service will be less vulnerable to funding cuts and political change, she points out.

Although Stoll sympathises with those involved in the early Sure Start projects, who may now fear for the future of their services she says the original model was focused on a small minority of families living in the most disadvantaged areas. This led to criticisms of a postcode lottery.

“It’s understandable that people want to protect those Sure Start projects that are seen as a valuable resource,” she says. “But in the long term it should benefit more children if children’s centres are rolled out to more families. It should end the postcode lottery.”

When Stoll talks of the benefits of children’s centres she mentions “the legacy” of Sure Start. There is the clear impression of the erstwhile jewel in New Labour’s crown losing its lustre. Sure Start’s charmed existence, well-funded and politically supported, is over. It has entered the mainstream and all the uncertainties that that entails.

Do you feel Sure Start has lost its way and the move towards children’s centres is a flawed one? To have your say go to the Discussion Forum

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This article appeared in the 30 November issue under the headline “Losing the centre ground”



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