How Sure Start centres matter if child poverty is to be consigned to history – Jayne Dowle

AT this time of year, as the sun slides away by late afternoon, I often take solace in the past. I pick up my ongoing family tree research. It’s my way of connecting to the thrum of the seasons and also, reminding myself to count my blessings.

Jeremy Corbyn visits a children's centre in Leeds as he sets out plans to relaunch the Sure Start programme.
Jeremy Corbyn visits a children's centre in Leeds as he sets out plans to relaunch the Sure Start programme.

I have a warm home, work and there’s food in the cupboards. This was by no means a given for my farming and mining ancestors. This year, as a divisive election looms, my autumn/winter ritual feels especially significant. I’m using it as both a personal and political measure.

No family member in living memory has broken his back in a mining accident, or ended their days in the workhouse, as my great-grandfather and his father did only a century ago.

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Jayne Dowle says child poverty is the biggest scourge of our times.

Many female ancestors found themselves pregnant roughly every two years. Some had 10, 12 or more children, many of whom died before adulthood; typhoid, measles and undefined ‘disease’ claimed their young lives. I was feeling grateful for progress, education and the welfare state until I read the shocking news that six children are taken to hospital with pneumonia every hour in England. That’s one child every 10 minutes.

Save the Children and Unicef found more children were admitted from the most deprived areas. The 10 per cent most-deprived areas of England recorded 525.6 admissions for all-cause pneumonia per 100,000 population, compared to 381.2 in the 10 per cent least-deprived.

Sadly, our region has one of the highest pneumonia admission rates in the country – NHS Ryedale and Scarborough Clinical Commissioning Group had the highest rate of admissions here with 1,058 per 100,000 patients.

Child poverty is on the increase (image posed by an actress)

Children with immune systems weakened by malnutrition or other infections, and those living with high air pollution, are at greater risk of developing the disease, which is caused by a bacteria, viruses or fungi, and affects breathing as the lungs fill with pus and fluid.

A horrible way for a child to die, in any age, and one which certainly shouldn’t be happening in a so-called civilised society in the 21st century. Yet last year 27 in England did.

I know that our political leaders have much to concern themselves with, but I urge them to address this startling reminder of child poverty. Labour have so far promised to reinvest in the Sure Start programme, massively scaled back under David Cameron’s austerity programme. Since 2010, it’s estimated that at least 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed their doors, including the one I went to when my own children were toddlers.

What more can be done to tackle child poverty?

Nothing exemplifies short-sighted government cost-cutting much more than that particular austerity measure. Far from a luxury, or an excuse for hand-outs, Sure Start centres provided support and education for parents, but also acted as an early warning system.

Families in severe difficulty were spotted and given targeted support. This wasn’t do-gooding, it made perfect sense. Early-years intervention makes a significant impact on life chances and eases pressure on the NHS and social services.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that Sure Start centres offer significant benefits to children’s health; on a national level, for every extra centre per 1,000 children, there were 18 per cent fewer hospital admissions for 11-year-olds each year – which amounts to around 5,500 hospitalisations fewer across the country.

Sadly, the reversal of the Sure Start policy would not be enough. These terrible figures on pneumonia suggest deeper and wider issues which any responsible would-be government should put straight to the top of the agenda. Decent housing is the main one.

I’ve told you before about the homes I pass every day where the curtains are never opened. I know that there are children in there; sometimes I see their little faces peeking between the cracks.

I know, too, that these houses are substandard rented accommodation where absentee landlords don’t give a stuff about mould creeping across the bedroom ceiling or damp forcing wallpaper off the walls. Insanitary living conditions are a major cause of disease. If our reforming Victorian forebears accepted that, why can’t so many of today’s politicians?

There has been much talk of making Britain great again, one way or another. It is a noble aim. However, when we recall former glories, we should also remind ourselves that some things are best left in the past. Into that category goes child poverty, slum housing and all the illnesses that claim young lives without remorse.