Coalition stands by Sure Start, but fails to explain “big society”

The coalition programme announced today sticks to Conservative manifesto pledges on Sure Start, but misses an opportunity to explain the "Big Society" idea.

The coalition programme announced today largely sticks to Conservative manifesto pledges on Sure Start,┬ábut misses an opportunity to put reality behind the “Big Society” idea. The new Government promises to “take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention and increase its focus on neediest families”. It is good to see recognition of the importance of Sure Start, one of the last Government’s big achievements. Unfortunately, the new Government doesn’t seem to remember its original purpose.

The original purpose of Sure Start was something more than early intervention. True, it worked with under fives, but its philosophy went far wider than poverty-plus-age-range. It aimed to empower local parents in poor areas, and support them in specifying and creating the services they wanted to improve their children’s lives.

Though funded with central government money, the purpose of Sure Start was localist: to create different provision for different places, responding to local needs rather than councils or Whitehall. Approaches varied, but the local voice was vital.

Sure Start local programmes were ‘Big Society’ before the term existed, but localism and parent power don’t seem to be the “original purpose” the new Government have in mind. The Government promises that organisations with a track record of supporting families will be more involved, and that providers will be paid in part by results. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but it is not taking Sure Start back to its roots.

More worrying, the Government’s proposals on health visitors are likely to reduce the focus on very needy families, not increase it. As with income tax allowances, the policy appears to be “ignore the destitute to pay the poor”. An increase in the number of health visitors would be very welcome, but do so by cutting Sure Start outreach services is perverse.

The children most able to benefit from support are those in the worst settings, in chaotic households with complex and multi-layered problems. Their parents will not trot up to the door of the children’s centre unbidden. They need workers in the Sure Start centres to go out and find them. The coalition programme promises to investigate “a new approach to helping families with multiple problems”, but it has part of one already in place, and proposes to cut it.

Given deficit reduction plans, it’s hard to get away from the fear that “original focus” implies “smaller”, and “focusing on the neediest families” implies “means-testing access to children’s centres”.

We aren’t in the heady days of 2005 when the Guardian could complain that the Government was only doubling spending on Sure Start rather than quintupling it, but if the Government are sticking with Sure Start, they should stick with its founding principles: equal access for all children in the area, local autonomy, and hard work to reach the worst-off.

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