Sure start is special. It is trusted, loved by its users and it transforms lives. Because sure start is so special it offers a unique opportunity for a fresh approach to both campaigning and improving services.
As part of the successful Campaign for a Labour Majority, Labour Friends of Sure Start were delighted to partner with Progress to host a roundtable on the role of sure start in securing a Labour government in 2015.
A packed room heard Jessica Asato argue that the cross-party consensus on the importance of early intervention is breaking down. Instead the government is pursuing a childcare policy which utterly ignores early years development, in preference for a narrow focus on getting parents back to work. Ian Mearns MP cautioned that as bad as things are, they will sadly get worse as the most punitive cuts have yet to come into force.
There was strong agreement with shadow children’s minister Lucy Powell MP that sure start centres must be free to innovate to meet local need, although Beverley Hughes cautioned that strong governmental leadership will still be key to ensuring high standards.
My own contribution focused on the immense power of sure start as a campaigning force.
This heartless government has halved sure start funding, forcing over 500 centres to close. But one good thing has come from this: it has unleashed a wave of anger. Grassroots campaigns against sure start cuts have sprung up across the country. People with tremendous passion, but hitherto little interest in party politics, have become ardent activists.
These grassroots campaigns are natural hubs for community organising, with a clear leadership role for local politicians and candidates. This cannot simply be electioneering – it must be about fundamental partnerships with communities. These campaigning partnerships have the power to engage, enthuse and inspire. This in turn offers a superb platform for a fresh approach to service delivery under a Labour government.
Sure start centres should become hubs of co-location, working with communities to find local solutions to the unique problems facing each neighbourhood. We all talk about community activism – but here is an infrastructure through which we can deliver true grassroots change.
Sure start provides that infrastructure for the simple reason that it is really special. It is famously evidence-based, drawing upon research from around the world. But equally importantly, sure start is values-based.
Sure start exists to bring people together. To break down barriers. To support everyone, but to prioritise those in the greatest need. To offer friendly support, not judgement and chastisement. Ultimately, sure start is founded on a belief in the power of the community to transform lives.
These are our values, Labour values.
This is why the government is at war with sure start. And this is why we need to fight for it. Not only to keep our centres open, but to place sure start at the core of our plans and to use it as a model for the future of our public services. Sure start stands for community activism, local innovation and high-quality services grounded in progressive values. It should be at the very heart of all our plans for a One Nation Britain.
Michael Pavey is director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and lead councillor for children and families in the London borough of Brent. He spoke at a Progress-Labour Friends of Sure Start roundtable event last month
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