They think it’s all over

    It will be years before the true impact of Sure Start on the lives
    of children is known, but the initial indications are that it will
    be among New Labour’s social policy success stories. Designed to
    provide a range of social and health support to deprived families
    with very young children, it has been generously funded, has got
    through to some traditionally hard-to-reach families, and is often
    highly regarded by those who use the service. It has a reputation
    among users, not to mention a budget, that local authority services
    can only dream of – and sometimes do.

    But Sure Start is about to lose its cherished independence. Most of
    its 524 local programmes will be “mainstreamed” within local
    authorities next year, although programmes in 21 council areas will
    go over this April. They will become part of the new network of
    local authority-run children’s centres. In his spending review last
    summer chancellor Gordon Brown promised 2,500 of these by 2008
    before being trumped by the prime minister, who pledged 3,500 by
    2010.

    It has led to a heated debate between Norman Glass, Sure Start’s
    creator, who claims the programme is being abolished in all but
    name, and Naomi Eisenstadt, director of the Sure Start Unit, who
    argues that the underlying principles will be retained despite the
    changes. The evident uncertainties about Sure Start’s future are
    shared by many of its local programme managers.

    For many local managers the local authority takeover brings
    opportunities and threats. It is an opportunity to forge close
    alliances with the emerging children’s trusts and to be part of the
    Every Child Matters agenda. But there are also worries about
    council bureaucracy and priorities which have little to do with the
    intensive preventive work that Sure Start is able to provide to
    families.

    “On balance the local authority takeover is a threat,” says John
    Fowler, who manages the Sheerness Sure Start, which is part of the
    first round of transfers taking place this April. He had an initial
    meeting with Kent Council in early February, but he still has no
    idea how much money he will have or what services he will be able
    to provide.

    “I know nothing about my budget and I’ve got five weeks to go,”
    Fowler says. “The council isn’t prevaricating, it’s desperately
    trying to get its act together. It’s very complicated for them too
    – they don’t know the situation because the government hasn’t let
    them know. And we’re right at the butt end of all this.”

    It is an anxious time not only for him, but for his staff too. “My
    staff are saying, hang on, if we might be losing the money, hadn’t
    we better move on? If things remain unsettled and uncertain, I risk
    losing a team it has taken three years to build up.”

    Angela Graham, head of children’s policy and performance in Kent
    social services, admits that the council is still in discussion
    with the government, but says that it may simply “passport” the
    money directly to the localities this year and mainstream them when
    the children’s centres start work next year. She doesn’t know what
    the funding will be; however, tough decisions lie ahead.

    “Children’s centres will not be as generously funded as Sure Start
    has been, so there will be a shortfall,” she says. “We’ll preserve
    what works and discard what doesn’t – and funding will be a factor
    in that.”

    What Sure Start programmes most fear losing is their localised,
    community-led spirit. Parents have had a major influence over how
    money and resources are used, but councils may be wary of giving so
    much power to communities. For example, social services departments
    may want to target families that programmes had previously
    overlooked.

    Lynda Hassall, manager of Carlisle South Sure Start, thinks that
    the programme’s preventive focus could be sidelined by the pressure
    of statutory work. “Child protection is rightly seen to have the
    priority in local authorities and is usually at the expense of
    prevention,” she says. “Parental participation is crucial – one of
    the tenets on which the whole Sure Start programme is based is that
    it should be community-led with professional input. What really
    worries me about local authorities is the lack of thinking about
    involving parents.”

    Fowler shares these concerns, pointing to cultural resistances in
    both health and social services. “They are quite nervous about
    community-led approaches. It’s about ceding power to
    non-professionals – there’s a great deal of professional jealously,
    a great distrust of the people.”

    Not surprisingly Naomi Eisenstadt displays more optimism.
    Performance targets and inspection frameworks will help ensure that
    the local autonomy of programmes is maintained, she says, and that
    parental involvement is more than tokenistic. She admits that
    resources will be spread “slightly more thinly” as Sure Start
    extends beyond its contentious geographical and age boundaries, but
    the old model lacked inclusivity and was no longer sustainable.

    “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” Eisenstadt says, “but if we
    really believe in children’s trusts then we have to take some
    risks. Why should councils interfere if the service is working at
    neighbourhood level?

    “There’s an arrogance in saying that only we can do it and nobody
    else can. The thing that really depresses me is that all of a
    sudden we are trying to defend an institution and forgetting about
    the outcomes for children. The point of Sure Start was to break out
    of institutional silos.”

    Tensions in the relationship with child protection were plain to
    see in the national evaluation of Sure Start published in January.
    In a survey of social services professionals, the difficulty of
    reconciling the demands of child protection and prevention was “by
    far and away” the most important for them. Statutory responsibility
    for child protection exerted a powerful influence on social
    services involvement in Sure Start. As the evaluation puts it: “In
    the most pessimistic cases this was seen as an entrenched problem,
    which against their every best effort was almost impossible to
    resolve.”

    Angela Graham agrees that protection and prevention will be hard to
    marry, despite years of “refocusing” that was designed to shift
    social services resources from firefighting crises to early
    intervention. She says that Kent is still thinking through the
    relationship between child protection services and Sure Start,
    adding that the council is “trying very hard” not to consider
    switching resources to the former. But nor are resources likely to
    move the other way, although she expects pressure from local
    programmes to make up the shortfall in funding.

    “One of the problems is that we’re not quite working with the same
    kinds of families,” Graham says. “For example, they’re not working
    particularly well with the hard-to-reach families who come into the
    child protection system.

    “They have done what local communities and parents want them to do,
    but the sorts of families we work with are not the families who
    join in with their local communities in running Sure Start. I hope
    that we’ll be able to line up our approaches more
    effectively.”

    But Fowler thinks that the writing is on the wall for the clearly
    demarcated deprived communities that have reaped the benefits of
    Sure Start until now. “These communities have been depressed for so
    long, they jolly well deserve to be spoilt. The glory days are
    over.”

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