Don’t you just love the grand parliamentary traditions? Starting each session with the pomp of the state opening; beginning each day with prayers in the chamber; the final day before christmas when the government sneaks out bundles of controversial reports.
With 424 government reports published on 17 December – 2015 was a truly vintage year for burying bad news. Buried particularly deep was independent Oxford university research, which absolutely castigated the government’s record on Sure Start. You had to hunt hard to find it – it was buried somewhere between another round of brutal cuts to council budgets and David Cameron’s booming travel expenses. But once you see the research, you can understand why they tried to hide it.
In July last year the government announced that it would hold a consultation on the future of Sure Start in Autumn 2015. Neither sight nor sound has been heard of this ever since. Labour Friends of Sure Start have been asking about this ‘ghost consultation’ for months – but the Department for Education had refused to comment. Now we know why.
The government have been sitting on this independent research fully aware that it drives a coach and horses through the corrosive myths they have been stoking regarding Sure Start.
Having halved the Sure Start budget and forced the closure of over 700 children’s centres since 2010, the government like to claim that we should focus on the quality of the service, not the size of the network. This is wrong. This new research categorically states that ‘budget cuts have led to reduced services and staffing, with reorganisations and closure of children’s centres affecting services in many areas’. Contrary to government spin, you simply cannot close swaths of centres without hurting those who depend on their services.
‘But Sure Start has lost its core purpose’, bleats the government. Children’s centres have become hangouts for yummy mummies. Again, this is wrong. This new research shows that disadvantaged families are the most likely to use children’s centres, using their services on average five months longer than more affluent families. This is in direct contrast to other local services which disadvantaged families are much less likely to use than the affluent. The reason? At Sure Start centres ‘the open-access, walk-in activities encouraged vulnerable families to take part because they did not feel there was a stigma attached to using the Centres’.
So if the government wants to make children’s centres cold settings, where disadvantaged mums are drilled with their responsibilities – it will be completely counterproductive, driving away the people they want to reach. And which centres are best at reaching those disadvantaged families the government is so keen to help? ‘Children’s centres with the best funding and staffing levels reach families in most need’, says the Oxford university report.
This is a very detailed, meticulously researched report from unimpeachable sources. Its message is clear: Sure Start works. If you put in decent money, you get quality outcomes in return. You would think this is obvious, but it is so contrary to Ggovernment policy that they buried the report.
Make no mistake, this report conclusively re-establishes the transformational power of Sure Start. It provides powerful ammunition for Labour to mount a formidable defence of the remaining children’s centres. But beyond that it represents the perfect opportunity for Labour to confidently develop an ambitious new Sure Start policy, to create thriving community hubs of family support and early intervention.
In trying to bury this devastating report, the government have only succeeded in digging themselves a hole – caught red-handed trying to stifle independent research because it is politically inconvenient. Tut, tut. Fortunately there’s a perfect way for them to make amends: throw open the long-delayed consultation on the future of Sure Start. I’m sure the public will say exactly the same as this research: Sure Start genuinely transforms lives – but this government’s policy is killing it.
Michael Pavey is director of Labour Friends of Sure Start
The full report can be read online here
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