Sure Start was to Blair’s government what the NHS was to Attlee’s. It was a radical extension of the state into a field previously characterised by an uneven patchwork of providers. Like the NHS, it universalised a service previously only guaranteed to the independently wealthy.
Again, like the NHS, the current Tory-led government have created a crisis in Sure Start. Over 700 centres have closed and thousands of skilled staff have lost their jobs.
A stream of shadow ministers have reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to Sure Start, but until last weekend there had been a notable absence of policy announcements.
That has now changed with Tristram Hunt unveiling a fresh start for Sure Start.
A Labour government will restore the duty of local authorities to provide childcare in Sure Start centres. These places will be provided by charities and local providers, which could double the number of childcare places available in SureStart centres.
Labour Friends of Sure Start warmly welcome these proposals, which keep within our own Sure Start policy framework.
The Tory-led government has hollowed out Sure Start. Hundreds of centres, though still open, are empty shells. Meanwhile demand for childcare is booming exponentially. Deploying this surplus capacity in SureStart centres for childcare is a very astute step. It reinvigorates the purpose of the centres, which hopefully will prevent any additional closures. Meanwhile such a substantial boost to childcare capacity has the potential to significantly bring down costs.
The plan for this capacity to be delivered by charities and local providers is also very welcome. One size does not fit all and local innovation is vital. SureStart centres are an ideal venue for co-located public services. Opening them up to childcare providers should be a first step to welcoming other partners such as health and employment agencies to base themselves in the centres.
While these plans are extremely welcome, Sure Start is about far more than just childcare – Sure Start centres are not simply nurseries. We now need further information on Labour’s plans for Sure Start’s family support function.
Sure Start exists to nurture and support families. This role has been completely rundown by the Tories. Centres should provide a universal offer for all families and also be at the heart of a shift from crisis intervention to early intervention. In addition to childcare, Sure Start centres should offer wraparound support services for all families. And they should be bases for outreach and robust interventions to support the most disadvantaged families.
So more policy is needed. But Tristram Hunt’s comments are by far Labour’s most significant announcement on SureStart since 2010.
The response by the Conservatives has been equally telling. They snidely denounced the original Sure Start programme as ‘unviable’. In so doing the Tories have effectively endorsed the 700-plus centre closures since 2010.
Sure Start was never ‘unviable’: it was utterly transformative. It just needed a government which believed in it. So Tristram Hunt’s conviction last weekend is extremely welcome:
‘If the Tories win a second term, I fear Sure Start will disappear in many parts of our country and one of the great progressive programmes will be lost to the next generation… Labour created Sure Start, Labour cares about Sure Start. Labour will save Sure Start… We are going to put the lights back on, get the kids back in and restore the founding purpose of SureStart.’
The Tories resented the NHS for decades, but it is only now that they have been able to launch a full-scale assault on it. Sure Start has not been so lucky. The Tories never believed in it and have shamelessly run it down. It is terrifying to think how many more centres would close under a Conservative government.
Labour’s emerging Sure Start policy is very encouraging. More work is needed, but already the dividing line is crystal clear: between a Labour party actively seeking a reinvigorated role for Sure Start and a Conservative party unrepentant on the wave of centre closures since 2010 and utterly devoid of any policy post-2015.
Michael Pavey is director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and deputy leader of the London borough of Brent. He tweets @MikeyPavey
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