Saturday, 15 September 2012

Unsure about the Start Our Children Get?

To prevent our lives from being blighted by crime, we need an organised police force, not just in the poorest areas of the country, but everywhere. We need them to be properly funded and well motivated. And if a particular force is not as effective as it should be, far from getting rid of the police service altogether, we want to see actions taken to improve the force in question.

A similar observation can be made about the need to prevent our children’s lives from being blighted by problems in their early years. Even those who defend ever widening wealth gaps are reluctant to come out openly against giving children an equal chance at the beginning of their lives. But every effort to move us closer to a common starting point, such as the Sure Start scheme introduced in Britain in the late 1990s, is beset by moves to reverse it.

The principles behind Sure Start are well established. Parents who have ready access to friendly support, expert advice, and a network of caring parents can give their children a more reliable foundation for their mental and physical development. Problems and potential can be spotted early, assistance is readily sought and provided, and the needs of each child are viewed as a whole and not in separate compartments. In practice, some Sure Start children’s centres are more effective than others. The key is to ensure they learn from the best and not lose precious resources to sustain their work.

Unfortunately what we have is a relentless cut in resources since 2010 while the tax rates for the richest are reduced. To deflect attention from this, we hear calls to limit children’s centres to just the “most deprived” areas, and drastically reduce their admin costs. While wasteful costs, be they in admin or any function, should be eliminated, admin is not something that can be simply discarded without consequence. Staff responsible for liaising with parents, organising activities, supervising maintenance, learning from service performance, all do a vital job. Getting rid of them means care and advice providers have to cover admin duties, and service quality suffer.

The argument about shrinking the reach of children’s centres relies on the superficial attraction of concentrating dwindling resources in the “most deprived” areas. But it is flawed in two respects. First, to save money, the “most deprived” will be defined in such narrow terms that many parents and children who need this service would be denied it. Secondly, as a consequence of turning the service into one for the extremely poor, the majority of people would see it as irrelevant to their own needs, becoming indifferent to it being further cut in the future.

We would not want police forces to be retained for just the “most deprived” areas, or to have schools or NHS provisions available for only the extremely poor. Neither should we confine the support provided by children’s centres to just a few stigmatised areas of “greatest need”.