Sure Start local programmes “may represent a major missed opportunity” for parents from ethnic minorities, according to a report last month. The study, part of a government evaluation of the national initiative, says many programmes are failing to engage with ethnic minority communities and have not managed to adopt a strategic approach to reaching them.
Children’s charity NCH is one of the main providers of children’s centres, and research completed last December found its centres had outperformed national benchmarks in engaging children and families from ethnic minorities.
One such centre is Riversley Park in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. One-third of the community it serves comprises Muslims who are Gujarati-speaking and, since it began nearly six years ago as a Sure Start local programme, the centre has worked hard to ensure their participation.
The area covered by the centre also includes a white community with high rates of unemployment, some traveller families, a few families from Iran and a growing Polish community.
A refuge in Nuneaton for ethnic minority women and their children from outside the area is also served by the centre.
Programme director Julie Doyle says that, when the programme started, some specific groups started to form. “Some groups started self-selecting and became solely made up from Asian families,” she says.
She adds that this presented the programme with the dilemma of whether to support the groupings, with the risk of excluding other communities, or to try to get more integration between different groups. They went with the latter and today the centre’s services and activities are attended by a range of parents.
The national evaluation found that some Sure Start programmes had given up trying to make links with some minority communities. Naomi Bradley, family support and early years manager at the centre, says this has never been a problem for her service and puts this down to it being initially located on the grounds of a primary school where many of the pupils were Muslim.
“I don’t feel we had to work especially hard,” she says. “It was being in the right place at the beginning.”
Doyle says it was important that the service could deliver right from the start, adding that it had to show it was not a “fly-by-night organisation” which helped out for a short while and then left.
Tahera Ingar, a family support worker at the centre who can speak Gujarati, has been holding a drop-in session for parents at the programme for about five years. Employing staff from the local community who can speak the same language is a key way of strengthening relationships, says Doyle. She adds that the centre also has a low staff turnover, enabling trust to be built between facilitators and parents.
Centre staff, including Ingar, also go out to places used by the Muslim community such as mosques, schools and the local women’s resource centre to let people know about the services at the centre and do outreach work with individual families. “It’s about being where the community is,” says Doyle. “You build trust and become an accepted service.”
From the beginning, parents have had a strong input into what services are provided at the centre through a monthly parents’ forum, including child care and lessons for parents who want to improve their English.
Atayeh Ghodrat, an Iranian who has been attending the centre with her son Soroosh since it was a Sure Start programme, regularly uses the service. “He plays with toys and other children, and I get to meet other parents,” she says. “Coming here has also helped me with my English.”
The national evaluation found there was only limited government guidance on how Sure Start programmes should work with ethnic minority communities. Bradley accepts this, but says the open nature of the guidance is necessary as services need to adapt to local needs.
There is an NCH network of regional managers and Doyle says this enables different centres to share what works and helps to develop good practice.
The fact that the centre is run by the voluntary sector makes people from ethnic minorities more inclined to visit it, Doyle says. “People usually haven’t had any bad experiences that would stop them engaging. That’s why we have a responsibility to get it right, and hopefully it promotes NCH.”
Although it is not council-run, the centre works in partnership with social services, and is involved in child protection plans. Doyle says some programmes have been “naive” by thinking that they would be able to distance themselves. He adds: “Sure Start programmes have tried to separate themselves from social services and you can’t. We are honest with families and they understand that.”
As Bradley puts it: “We befriend families but we are still professionals.”
➔ For more information on the Riversley Park Children’s Centre, call 02476 378601
Terms of engagement
● Employ staff who are representative of the local community and speak the same language.
Report’s main findings
● Sure Start local programmes and the National Evaluation of Sure Start have failed to address ethnicity with “rigour or sensitivity”.
Study from: www.surestart.gov.uk/_doc/P0002437.pdf
Contact the author
This article appeared under the headline “Minority report”