Ryan Shorthouse: We must fight this devastating blow to families

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ONE of the last government’s greatest achievements, Sure Start Children’s Centres, are under threat. A survey released last week found 250 are at risk of closing within a year and 2,000 are cutting back their services for families.

This is despite David Cameron in opposition, when I was a policy adviser on early years education for the Conservatives, promising the electorate he would protect Sure Start. This is devastating news for families and children.

This week Frank Field, the Labour MP who is an adviser to the Government on poverty, has told the coalition to intervene to protect Sure Start from local authority spending cuts. The Government should get a grip, he says. I agree.

These centres provide an array of support – parenting classes, pre-school education, breastfeeding clinics – which are critical for improving parenting skills and the cognitive, social and health development of young children.

Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study, which tracks 19,000 children born in 2000, shows that parenting style – the way a parent interacts with children – can mitigate the negative effects of poverty on children.

Sure Start plays a vital role in providing the services that strengthen parenting and improve children’s life chances.

Again and again, evidence shows that investment in high-quality professional support when children are in infancy, when their brains are most malleable, is the most effective in boosting children’s long-term outcomes. By the age of three, 85 per cent of a child’s brain is already developed so stimulation and education before this age is key.

Two recent government-commissioned reviews authored by senior politicians advised the government to invest in the early years and reap the long-term savings from reduced poverty, worklessness and anti-social behaviour.

But the infrastructure that delivers early years support is crumbling. The Government pays for new reports and speaks warmly of the findings, but then does the exact opposite of what is recommended and cut funding for Sure Start in real terms.

The ring-fence on Sure Start funding has been lifted too, meaning squeezed local authorities can use the money elsewhere.

Low-income parents will also see a cut in the Sure Start maternity grant and the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit, critical demand-side support when their children are young.

Times are tough, we are told. Everyone faces sacrifices. But cuts to Sure Start undermine key aims of the coalition. First, social mobility. Second, reducing worklessness. Children’s Centres provide employment support and childcare, essential in enabling parents – particularly women – to secure employment.

Third, letting such centres fold will hinder the building of a Big Society, where social capital and neighbourliness increases. Recent research demonstrates that children are critical for the development of social capital because parents form networks through the activities their children engage in.

Children’s centres are community hubs, parents forming bonds because of the provision for their children: their closure strips away the opportunities for communities to flourish, and the ensuing voluntarism and reciprocity to emerge.

Recent polling reveals the public are sceptical of the Big Society, believing it simply to be code for cuts. That is because, so far, the drive to cut public spending has trumped all other motives. If the Government wants to woo the public to the Big Society cause, here is its chance: take steps to salvage these community goods as local authorities turn off the funding tap.

But how? The Department for Education has hinted that Sure Start should start charging for services. But determining eligibility for free Sure Start services and introducing payment systems to collect money would require a new, expensive bureaucracy. And fee levels would have to be low enough to maintain demand from higher income groups as evidence from the US shows mixed childcare settings have better outcomes for children. So, overall, introducing co-payments is likely to be more costly than the revenue it generates.

The Conservatives should instead do what they said they would do in opposition and fund Sure Start centres directly from central government, rather than via local government.

This would ensure that funding is invested in Sure Start and not lost in local authority bureaucracy and topslicing, thus salvaging many of the children’s centres that are expected to close.

Direct funding could also allow more voluntary organisations to bid to manage centres, bringing greater expertise and potential efficiencies to make Sure Start sustainable in the long-term.

If the Government wants to make the Big Society work, both politically and on the ground, it should act now.