Jayne Dowle: No hushing up the loss of vital Sure Start centres

JUST when things couldn't get any worse for children, along comes another damning report, this time highlighting the scale of Sure Start centre closures.

Tony Blairs flagship programme of Sure Start childrens centres has been hollowed out by cuts, a report by The Sutton Trust has found. PIC: PA

Only last week we learned from the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield that youngsters in our own region were being dragged down by a toxic combination of poor living standards, underperforming schools and lacklustre economic prospects.

It doesn’t seem two minutes since we heard from former Labour Minister Alan Milburn that “growing up poor” – the name of his important report for The Social Mobility Commission in November – was more complex geographically and more damaging socially than anyone had dared imagine. Children in former industrial heartlands, rural and coastal areas are compromised by what Milburn calls “a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division”.

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And now we have the news that the scale of closures affecting Sure Start children’s centres has been hushed up. It’s bad enough that such a lifeline for families should have to be axed at all. What’s worse is that Government Ministers are not exactly forthcoming with the truth.

As many as 1,000 Sure Starts have been shut down in England since 2010, double the official closure estimates, finds The Sutton Trust, an education and social mobility foundation. This has left the UK’s flagship early-years programme – introduced under the Blair government – “hollowed out” and in decline.

Swingeing cuts to local authority funding from successive Conservative-led governments have meant that most councils have had to abandon the original Sure Start ideal; a neighbourhood-based, open-access facility for all parents and pre-school children.

A decade or so ago as a mother of two children under five, I often used to pop into our local one. There were activities and classes and other mothers to talk to. There was lots to learn about feeding and development and child health in a friendly, non-judgmental place.

I also used to take outgrown clothes and baby equipment to pass on to other families. It was a happy, caring and sharing environment. And I know first hand that it helped to build stronger communities. Having this resource on their doorstep probably saved some mothers from being overwhelmed by post-natal depression and the sheer exhausting challenge of being a parent.

It was such a positive place, part of a collaborative movement to give all children the best start in life. But when David Cameron became Prime Minister, the dismantling began. When he came to power, there were 3,600 centres in the UK.

Then various studies were done, if I remember, which discredited the role of children’s centres. Value for money became a factor, as if babies and toddlers can ever be analysed entirely in fiscal terms. Parents were told, in no uncertain terms, to stand on their own two feet.

Gradually, the dream faded. Private providers took over lots of children’s centres, and countless lonely parents in some of the most deprived parts of the country went back to relying on Peppa Pig for company.

Of the remaining centres, in some cases these are now open only sporadically during the week, in the most socially deprived areas. And some centres no longer focus exclusively on the under-fives, but are open to young people up to the age of 19. Others limit provision to families in crisis referred by child protection. However, in the past few months many more councils have proposed or announced cuts, such as Leicestershire, Birmingham, Warwickshire and Somerset. After closures in Northamptonshire, some early-years services were moved into libraries, but now those libraries also face the axe.

And this is all in the name of social mobility? When will Conservative Ministers – and Prime Minister Theresa May herself – see that they can’t talk in grandiose terms about improving social mobility then pull down the structures that support it.

I’m not saying that Sure Start children’s centres were a perfect solution. However, I do know that any venture which targets support in the socially and economically deprived areas where it is needed can only be a good thing. It is not an indulgence, as some right-wingers would have us believe. Neither is it a waste of money. If one child’s life is improved – or even saved – because this service spotted a problem, then it is an investment well spent.

And it has never been more in demand. We thought things were bad for parents when my children were small; it has got worse. The rise of zero-hours jobs, the impact of Universal Credit, the proliferation of pay-day loans and other hugely expensive forms of borrowing to pay the bills, the spiralling cost of childcare, lack of recourse to free legal and family law services except in cases of proven domestic abuse...

I could go on. But it’s not you who should be reading this. It’s the Ministers who preside so loftily over the lives of our most vulnerable members of society – then have the gall to swerve telling the truth – who need to know.