The cycle of deprivation that forms when young
parents can see no way forward is hard to break, but the government is looking
to do just that with its early excellence centres programme. Mark Hunter gauges
progress on Europe’s largest estate, in Leeds.
At first sight Seacroft doesn’t
look like one of the most deprived areas in the country.
Just five miles to the east of Leeds’ thriving
city centre, its terraced houses and tower blocks sprawl around a swathe of
green parkland that belies its status as the biggest housing estate in Europe.
Closer inspection reveals all the usual signs
of poverty. The well-tended playing fields are pocked with the scorch marks of
burned out cars, much of the housing is in poor repair and the local paper
leads with news of a shooting in a nearby pub. Levels of unemployment, crime
and drug abuse are all well above the national average.
To the south of the estate a group of teenagers
have gathered outside Parklands school, joking and handing round cigarettes.
They are not playing truant. They are here to pick up their children.
For many the cycle of poverty has already
begun. Disrupted schooling leading to poor employment prospects, families
crumbling under the combined pressures of low income, poor housing and
ill-health. Breaking out of the cycle is no easy task. To get a job you need
qualifications, but who will look after the kids while you train? How do you
ensure the best for your children when your own upbringing was far from ideal?
These young parents, however, may not have to
look too far for an escape route. Attached to Parklands school is a family
centre which, as part of the Seacroft Network, was one of the first wave of
early excellence centres to be set up after the programme’s launch in 1997.
Aiming to support the needs of both children
and their parents, the network offers services ranging from basic nursery care
to full-time vocational training for the parents. From three sites around the
estate, its 60-odd staff provide early years care, outreach support by local residents
for families, counselling, health services, housing and financial advice,
social support and leisure activities. Adult training courses are geared to
promote numeracy, literacy and access to employment. All have crèche facilities.
According to project manager Maureen Park the
aim is to offer wide-ranging and flexible support to families facing a diverse
array of difficulties. “It’s all about giving families choices,” she says.
“Listening to parents, listening to carers and asking ‘what can we do to help
For most, the entry point is the provision of
child care. This may be a full-day nursery for working or student parents or
more flexible arrangements for those who simply need a little extra help.
“Not all parents want to bring their child to a
nursery and leave them,” says Park, “so we have times when they can come and be
with their children in the group.” This also helps ease isolation.
“Single mums can find it very difficult to go
out of a night because they don’t have anyone to look after their kids or they
don’t feel safe. So we have a bingo group during the day and another group for
lone dads who all go off down to the sports club together.”
Once introduced to the centre, many parents
will then take advantage of the other services on offer. The informal
environment helps to bring into the open problems that may otherwise have
“Some people are very nervous about approaching
professionals,” says Park, “they see the title but they don’t see the person.
What we can do is provide the person. We try to gain the confidence of the
parent and then introduce colleagues who may be able to help.”
For instance, one young mother who was worried
about her child’s hearing didn’t have the confidence to speak to the health
visitor. One of the nursery staff offered to accompany her and the problem was
Staff at the centre also work closely with
social services, often providing early preventive support to avert the need for
child protection measures.
“The social worker will say to a parent: ‘I
don’t want you to get into a situation where we are going to court for care
orders so why not see what they can do for you at the nursery because there’s
lots of things they can do to support you’.”
Park says a move away from the more
prescriptive approach seen in the past has encouraged parents to accept such
“It used to be that the social worker would say
‘this child needs provision’. But those were the children that we didn’t see
very much because the parents had been told to bring them. But if you turn it
around and work with the parent they may end up saying ‘I think I’d like to
come along to that group and wouldn’t it be great if my child could go to the
According to Kay Kendall, who manages the
network’s site at Parklands Children’s Centre, there has been a noticeable
decline in the need for social services involvement since the family support
services were introduced.
“We don’t have as many families with named
social workers as in the past and that’s because we can access more preventive
measures early on,” she says.
Kendall’s involvement in multi-service support
to families in Seacroft predates the early excellence programme by several
years and, in fact, came about more through expediency than design. In 1993 she
was managing the South Parkway Early Years Centre when it was burned down by
arsonists. Offered temporary accommodation at the nearby Parklands Primary
School, staff and children moved into an upstairs room in 1994.
The school already had an attached nursery
offering two-hour sessions during term-time and it soon made sense to merge the
two services. All the child care moved onto the ground floor which allowed the
upstairs to be redeveloped to provide family support services.
“We asked the parents what kind of support they
would like and it became obvious that that there were a lot of people out there
who were just waiting for something to be offered,” says Kendall.
The centre employed a family support
co-ordinator and set up initiatives including a women’s group, parent and
toddler group, domestic violence support group, and assertiveness training.
Meanwhile, the successful early excellence
centre bid had allowed the old South Parkway site to be rebuilt into a
state-of-the-art family services centre, now managed by Isabel Jones. The
Seacroft Network’s third site was provided by the East Leeds Family Learning
Centre which runs the adult education programmes, work experience placements
and a range of child care services.
In 1999 a Sure Start project was set up in
Seacroft and began working with the network, allowing it to strengthen its
links with the local community.
“Sure Start has a team of outreach workers who
go out into the community where they meet people, tell them of the services we
offer and accompany them for their first visit because that can be quite a big
step for some families,” says Kendall.
The new programme also provides some invaluable
job opportunities. “The whole of our women’s group were employed by Sure
Start,” says Kendall, “some as outreach workers, some as child care workers,
others in administration.”
Nobody in Seacroft is so naive as to believe
that the problems of its deep-seated deprivation are going to disappear
overnight. But Maureen Park is convinced that by supporting the parents of
today, it is possible to improve their children’s prospects tomorrow.
“It will be out of my lifetime before we see
the full benefits of this and the Sure Start programme,” she says. “But I think
we are already on the move.”
Announced by the government in 1997, the early
excellence centre programme aims to develop models of good practice in
providing seamless education and care services for young children and their
families. It encourages the integration of early education, child care and
family support services, including parental involvement and outreach work. To
date 58 centres have achieved early excellence status, most of which are in
deprived inner city areas. Another 42 are promised before 2004. The government
says that initial evidence from the 29 first wave centres points to a number of
benefits of this integrated approach including reduced family breakdown,
increased rates of mainstream inclusion
for special needs pupils and potential for substantial cost savings on