Sure Start Children’s Centres

Part of Suppmentary Estimates 2010-11 — Department for Education – in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 2nd March 2011.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 1:32 pm, 2nd March 2011

I wish to make three short points in this debate, so that my colleagues can get in. I am sure that many of them will register their worries about the future of the Sure Start networks. I am fortunate, as our local authority clearly is not going to make any decisions until after the local elections, so I speak as one of those whose Sure Start network is currently intact.

Although it is very important that such concerns are registered, I should like to contribute to raising the spirit of the debate and our hopes for what foundation years can achieve. Indeed, some of my hon. Friends will make the point that that makes the closure of Sure Starts an even more important issue, not less important. We now have enough information to know that, if we want to make a major difference to the life chances of children, particularly poorer children, we need to do it very early on and not think that that will happen automatically in primary, secondary, further or higher education. These are the most crucial years if we are to make a difference.

Two pieces of information that I gathered together when writing the report on foundation years staggered me and knocked me sideways. One was the longitudinal study that looked at outcomes for young children, thanks to which we now know where such children end up in their late twenties. It showed that, probably at the age of three but certainly by five, the die of life is set for most children. Of course, after that age, the most brilliant parents, schools and teachers can make some difference for individuals, but it is very difficult to make a class difference for whole groups of our constituents. So if we are to be serious about whatever we spend, we need, over time, to redistribute resources from further education and from secondary and primary schools into the foundation years, not in a gigantic or absurd way, but in a way that recognises that building up this budget requires knowledge and expertise. We should note the Select Committee Chairman’s plea that we learn from what we are currently doing and add to our success, rather than knocking that sideways and jumping into the latest obscure way to extend life chances.

The second piece of information concerns an area in Birkenhead that has had Sure Start for 10 years. I asked the head of a really good school what 10 things he wanted from children attending school on their first day. What skills did he need? He shared this exercise with his teachers and with other schools, and not only in the Birkenhead area. There were some stunning replies. The schools would like the children to know their own names; to know the word “stop”, because that can hint at danger for them. They would like them to learn to sit still, so they can begin playing properly and by that learn; to learn how to take off certain items of clothing; to learn how to hold a crayon; to know what a book is and how to open it the right way.

This is not a school in Birkenhead that is one the most “challenged”, as we must euphemistically call it. It is a school where, 20 years ago, I first learned that mums would lie about their addresses to get their children into a better school than they would otherwise be allocated. While lying is of course wrong, I could not but have a sneaking admiration for those mothers who were acting in this way, and who knew in a ration-book economy what little chance they had to choose the best services for their children. So although this is not the most challenged school, even after Sure Start—in fact, it was one of the first Sure Starts in the country and has been operating for 10 years—we were still finding children who were highly unprepared for school.

In the light of those two pieces of information from the report, we know that the die is cast for all too many children by the age of five, and that something quite troubling is going on in many areas in our constituencies, where children are nurtured in an arbitrary and random way. I see young people in Birkenhead who are so un-nurtured by their parents that I wonder whether I would survive if I were subjected to the things they are exposed to.

That information underscores the importance of this debate, and in that context I want to make a plea for Sure Start, but not because I disagree with the view that it should be radically reformed, which is an issue I will deal with in a moment. Sure Start already has some extraordinary advantages. It is a brand name. None of the parents whom I spoke to in the various areas I visited throughout the country in undertaking this inquiry told me that this is a service for poor people that stigmatises them. If anything, some of the more bushy-tailed parents who might well not have used the centres were actually there, knowing what a good service Sure Start was providing for children and wanting it for their own. It would be appalling if that brand name were destroyed or damaged in any way.

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