Sharon was asked to deliver the keynote speech for the 10th National Sure Start Conference at the Lowry Centre in Manchester.
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It’s a pleasure to be here today and speaking to you all.
The agenda I have seen looks like you’ve covered pretty much all of the current issues surrounding the Sure Start programme and wider policies around the early years and early intervention, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t have been here to see and hear more of it.
The next time I’ll be in Manchester will probably be for the Labour Party conference at the end of September, and I’m sure that I’ll be discussing many of the same issues you have been discussing today at some of the fringe events there.
The last time I was in Manchester, back in January, I came to visit the Ardwick Sure Start Centre at Medlock School, just a couple of miles from here.
As some of you may know, I’m a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start, and concerns had been raised about Manchester’s plans for Sure Start as part of the Inquiry that we were conducting into the impact of all the changes the government had made since 2010.
And as Shadow Minister I’d also received desperate emails from local parents, who were convinced that the city council were planning to close centres and strip away key services.
I obviously raised these concerns with local MPs, and they invited me to come visit Ardwick, and to speak to the people behind the changes that Manchester was, and still is going through.
So it was that I met Dr Shirley Woods-Gallagher and Dr Caroline White – whose passion and expertise in wanting to ensure that Sure Start in Manchester was truly reaching all families was phenomenal.
The problem they started with was that they weren’t reaching enough families – especially in areas like Ardwick where residents come and go pretty quickly, and there are lots of different nationalities, languages and cultures in the mix.
To tackle this, they’re moving resources away from things that are nice to do, but possibly unproven or don’t quite have the impact that they should, and towards actively bringing people into the centre, and then working with those who needed specific help.
They have found a way of getting live birth data from the NHS – albeit through a ridiculously convoluted process – and can use that to ensure that every new mum gets a knock on their door from outreach workers.
They’re also doing some great work giving health visitors extra training to ensure that they can properly pick up potential problems and refer families to the targeted services and programmes available.
The families who were already using the centre were obviously worried that some of the services they used and enjoyed would go – and some of them did, or were scaled back.
But, those behind redesigning the services were absolutely right that bringing in more families should be the number one priority, as it should be for all children’s centres.
I’m therefore very pleased that I am here to hear Caroline Sharp’s thoughts on how that can be achieved across the country.
I’ve been asked as part of my speech to talk about the importance of early intervention.
I could probably stand here all day and talk about the various theories, studies and surveys which demonstrate how vital intervention programmes are, including Sure Start.
But speaking to this audience I don’t think I need to – everyone in this room is here because they know the impact that early intervention can have, and they want to be at the forefront of delivering it.
The long-term economic and social benefits of addressing all manner of problems at the earliest possible age are obvious and self-evident, and I am confident that the argument for doing so has been won in Parliament.
However, with all of the empirical evidence and statistics we can quote when we get up in the Commons to speak about this, it can be easy at times for policy-makers to forget that every one of those statistics is a personal story.
One of the most powerful I have heard while I’ve been the Shadow Minister came from a father, who had travelled down to Westminster from Pen Green Centre in Corby to speak at a seminar I was holding on Sure Start ahead of a Parliamentary debate later that day.
He told the assembled MPs and Peers about the impact that the centre has had on his life, and the lives of his children – helping him to get over his own very serious problems and be a better father.
One of the things he said really stuck with me: “Everything good in my life in the last 5 years has been down to Pen Green Children’s Centre” – an incredibly powerful comment but, I am sure, a sentiment that is shared by tens of thousands of parents across the country, if not more.
The second example I want to share with you comes from a visit I made just last week to see the work of OxPIP at Rosehill & Littlemore Children's Centre in Oxford.
For any of you who aren’t aware of their work, OxPIP stands for the Oxford Parent Infant Project, and runs a number of services in-home and through local Sure Starts which are based on attachment theory and the importance of parent-child bonding.
This ranges from baby massage - which I know the Minister has previously slated as being for ‘yummy mummies’, but does do absolute wonders for parents who aren’t confident in touching and picking up their baby’s cues - to intensive one-to-one therapy where real problems are apparent.
While I was there I was shown a video of the work they did with one of those parents, who had initially approached the service because her 4-year-old son was presenting with speech delay.
However, the therapist soon identified that the real problem in that family was that the mother was not bonding with her baby – she couldn’t pick up his cues, and wasn’t talking to him.
These are classic signs of attachment issues, and were obviously causing the mother real stress, and whatever the mother feels obviously passes on to her children.
When asked why she wasn’t talking to him, she said that the baby didn’t understand her, so there was no point – nobody had ever told her that cooing and basic communication was so vital.
Over the course of a number of weeks, the work that the OxPIP therapist did with her showed her how to communicate with her baby, and by the end of the process she had got it, and the whole family were much happier and closer as a result.
That’s the kind of intervention which might not seem like much in itself, but will mean a huge improvement to the development of her children, and to the quality of life of the whole family.
That’s the real difference that early intervention can make, and everything else that we talk about:
…cost savings in later life…
…improved economic performance...
…tackling poverty and social problems…
…all of these follow on from the fact that you are improving individual lives.
That for me is why early intervention is so important, and why it must be at the absolute top of the government’s agenda.
One of the things I find most galling about Sarah Teather, my opposite number, is that she regularly talks about the priority that this government gives to early intervention, including repeated protestations that the government has protected Sure Start.
Everyone here knows that this is utter rubbish.
Nearly £1.5bn has been taken out of the Early Intervention Grant over three years – the average drop in funding for local authorities from 10/11 to 11/12 was more than 22% in real terms, with some of the most deprived areas getting the biggest cuts.
If that doesn’t demonstrate the government’s commitment to investing in children and early intervention, I’m not sure what does.
And it’s not just the amount of money in the new EIG that’s the problem.
Councils are facing even bigger front-loaded cuts to their main grants, so because the EIG isn’t ringfenced, the temptation – or in many cases the unavoidable need – to dip into that pot is huge.
So, vital early years services and intervention programmes – which includes things like drug, alcohol and sexual health programmes - which benefit children, families and communities alike, are under threat.
The government’s first response was that they were increasing the number of health visitors to do outreach and health checks, so that was OK – even if the Children’s Centre they should be working out of gets closed down or reduced to a mere shell.
Anyone thinking I’m exaggerating when I say ‘being reduced to a shell’ need look no further than Hammersmith and Fulham, where the budgets of some of their centres have been cut from £400,000 or more to around £25,000.
But notwithstanding that, the extra 4,200 health visitors is an ambition that I can welcome.
If they’re properly qualified and experienced, and if they’re put to good use…
…providing outreach services for Children’s Centres…
…spotting the early signs of problems…
…and acting to solve them…
…then they will be a real asset.
Unfortunately, we’re no closer to realising that ambition than we were when the government came to power.
In fact, we’re further away – the latest NHS figures show that the health visitor headcount has decreased by 186 since April 2010.
So that’s just another 4,400 to go now, then.
Their new favourite shield to our criticisms is that they are expanding the two year old offer.
But then they said that ramping up towards the first phase next year needs to be paid for out of the EIG – despite the fact that many local authorities have seen their EIG have a real terms cut or freeze this year compared to last.
Nick Clegg is so proud of the 2 year old offer that he made it a central part of trying to rebuild his image in the run up to the local elections next week – telling the Independent on Sunday that he wanted to recruit an extra 65,000 early years workers by next September.
Unfortunately, he must not have told the Department for Education about that – a source there told the Daily Mail the following day that it was more likely to be around 12,000.
To be honest, I don’t think anyone in Government has a clue yet – maybe some of the professionals here today might be able to give me a better answer.
And what neither of them said was how qualified those extra early years workers needed to be, which is crucial to the success of this entire endeavour – it stands to reason that if you’re bringing in the neediest children, they’re going to have a lot of needs that need addressing.
Yet around the country Early Years Area SENCO posts are being deleted, along with other specialists who provide support to early years settings.
Are those settings supposed to manage on their own? And if so, will the extra staff have the right skills to be able to work with some of our most vulnerable children at such an important time in their lives in terms of development?
This is something the government need to address as a matter of urgency – we need a comprehensive plan of how this roll-out is going to be delivered so that everyone involved, from providers to professionals to parents, knows what is going to be expected.
One of the major reasons given for extending the two year old offer to the 40% most-deprived children was to solve some of the problems associated with the riots last summer.
The same reason was given for the new Troubled Families initiative.
The problem I see with this initiative is that the funding is only available to councils as a 40% contribution to the cost of the programmes they put in place – payable on results.
In better financial times, this probably wouldn’t have caused local authorities too many problems, but at a time when many of them are struggling just to meet their statutory duties, I foresee real difficulties in getting high-impact programmes off the ground in many areas.
Just as an example of this pressure that councils are under, I’m visiting a Children’s Centre in Newcastle tomorrow, where the council are having to beg Ministers for money to be able to cope with the number of children they have in care.
Whatever you, or I, might think about the cuts that Sure Start and early intervention has received, we all recognise that there isn’t as much money as there was in the early days of Sure Start.
Given that, we need to ensure that whatever money we do have, and can direct towards early intervention, is spent on programmes that make a real difference to the lives of children and their families.
That means we need to pick up the many excellent evidence-based programmes and policies that are being run through Sure Start and its partners all over the country, we need to demonstrate their value and impact, and we need to ensure that those programmes are available to other centres and local authorities to draw on.
What I want is a toolbox of intervention programmes – similar to the list of the best programmes that Graham Allen compiled as part of his report.
Stephen Twigg – the Shadow Education Secretary and therefore my boss – has already talked about establishing an Office For Educational Improvement, which will put education methods beyond the grasp of politicians, so that they’re based on evidence and best practice, rather than on political priorities or dogma.
I believe that early education and family intervention programmes would sit well within the scope of that body.
If I become a Minister – or when I become a Minister – I do of course have my own ideas about the best programmes and activities that I have seen, but given the utmost importance I place on Sure Start and all of the things that go on around it, I want to ensure that the policies I make are based on the best possible advice, so they will stand the test of time, and genuinely improve the lives of millions of people.
Of course, having funding for those policies is important, but it’s what that funding gets you, and it’s the impact that is has on families and children’s life chances, that is the most important thing in all of this.
Sure Start isn’t about the centres, it’s about the services that families get inside those centres, and making sure the families who need it the most do get them.
That said, I do think universalism is a big part of that, and I do think having a centre in a community, provided that you can get people to come to it, is the best way of both providing the core services, as well as getting parents and carers together to help decide what other services they need.
Without the centre, you lose a big part of what Sure Start has become for many parents…
…a support network of people in the same or similar situation to you…
…a reason to leave the house with your new child…
…and in many cases, a lifeline to the outside world.
Policy-makers should never slip into the belief that Sure Start is there for the poorest – clearly more deprived areas tend to have the most issues, and require more resources, but things like post-natal depression and the corollary problems it can cause are not the preserve of any social class.
So I wouldn’t want to see us lose the universality we have, and if anything I see the role of the health visitors and other outreach workers as being to bring all families to Sure Start, wherever and whoever they may be.
If we can look at what Frank Field said about making Children’s Centres a community service hub, where people have to go to access things like registering births and claiming child benefit, and even before that, accessing services while they are pregnant, then I think that would make a big impact, and I’d like to explore how feasible that it is.
Ensuring centres get live birth data – or even pregnancy data - so they know where the families are is key to this, and is something that should be relatively simple to do, but too often it’s not.
It is happening in some centres, such as the one in Manchester I mentioned earlier, and looking at how it works in those centres will teach us a lot, but if it takes a diktat from central government to ensure that it happens everywhere, then that diktat should be issued.
I also want to explore the work that has been done in places like Knowsley, Bradford and Reading by the Innovation Unit as part of their Transforming Early Years project.
For those who may not be aware of it, they have been looking at how to get local communities – some of which are extremely diverse - much more involved in identifying local needs and priorities, and designing services to meet them.
Through that process, the researchers have shown that significant revenue savings can be made, but also that the outcomes they achieve for families are positive:
…peer support networks are established…
…parents get other parents to come along to centres, and therefore more families are reached…
…and as parents volunteer they build up skills and experience which can be accredited and therefore give them the confidence and CVs to find employment.
Once again, this kind of working will be nothing new to many of you here today, because many of the most successful centres across the country are already doing it to great effect.
The future of early intervention may well be in the hands of those professionals – like many of you here today – who are delivering it on the ground.
After all, you’re the experts, you’re the ones who see the problems many families have on a day-to-day basis, and you’re the ones who help those families overcome those problems.
But it must also be in the hands of those families themselves, and it must also be in the hands of government.
If we are to ensure that Sure Start and intervention programmes are both sustainable and deliver real outcomes, then parents need to be engaged both in identifying their own needs and the needs of their peers, as well as take ownership of the processes involved in meeting those needs.
But underpinning all of that, there must be strong commitment from government, both to give communities the support and tools they need to build services around themselves, as well as to ensure that that rebuilding process is purely about improving services, and not about finding cost savings to justify budget cuts.
It won’t be easy, there are no magic bullets or quick fixes, and what works in one area won’t be right for others, but with everyone on the same page:
…parents, professionals and – dare I say it – politicians…
…we can make a real difference to the futures of our children, to the happiness of our families, and therefore to the future success of our country.