I would like to pull together the point that my hon. Friend has just made and the point about evaluation. Does he agree that if we are to have a more localist approach, national Government need to ensure that evaluation takes place so that we have the data to see whether local authorities are making a difference to the school-readiness of children when they turn up? If we spend all this money and it does not make any difference, as the Durham studies have shown in too many cases involving poorer children, then we are spending money to no positive result.
— from debate entitled “Sure Start Children’s Centres”
The three speeches/headings immediately before
- 1 earlier: Neil Carmichael
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would say that that is the experience of Sure Start in one situation, but we need to be sure that all Sure Starts deliver high standards for all the children who attend.
I want to make two general points about Sure Start. First, there is the issue of localism, which has cropped up several times. The real need is to ensure that we shape our services for the needs that we find on the ground where we see the problems. It is therefore right that local authorities have more influence in allocating and shaping provision. This is the converse of the previous Government’s approach, which was always top down, telling everybody what it was important to do and ensuring they did it, but not taking into account people’s needs, especially local circumstances. That obsession with top-down control often means that people end up worrying too much about the structure and too little about those within it and the children needing to benefit from it.
Secondly, we are no longer ring-fencing funding. That is right, because it is important to have local accountability for the provision of services and to enable local authorities to make the decisions that they want to make. The way in which the Government are now funding Sure Start is the better way to ensure that these facilities can be more flexible and adaptable. I make the case for localism on those terms.
- 2 earlier: Bill Esterson
I want to give an example from personal experience. My own family were lucky enough to have access to a children’s centre some years ago when my son was three years old, and we certainly benefited as a family, but this is more about the other families who were from more disadvantaged backgrounds than ours. They clearly stated that in terms of opportunities and development, the differences between the younger children who had access to children’s centres and their older siblings were very noticeable within the same families, let alone on the same estates between different families. That evidence was very strong, and I could see it at first hand.
- 3 earlier: Neil Carmichael
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to follow that very lengthy and detailed speech by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
This debate needs to cover several points, some of which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the Chairman of the Education Committee. For example, unfortunately we have a huge number of NEETs in our country. That is a measure of the failure to deal with children in early years education in a proper and satisfactory way. Until we got into government, there was a failure to deal with the widening inequality gap—a damning indictment—and we have to tackle that.
I want to say a few words about resources. This debate is, to some extent, influenced by the fact that we are in a period of reductions in public expenditure, so it is worth noting that we spend almost 40 times as much paying interest on this country’s debt as we do on the subject that we are talking about. That puts our funding difficulties into perspective.
Of course, we have Sure Start facilities in my constituency—for example, Treetops in Dursley, which is first class. It is very important to ensure that Sure Start really does what the label says. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is right that it is a very good brand, and it does say something that is really encouraging—a sure start. However, we must be completely certain that that is exactly what happens. My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) was right to talk about the importance of evaluation and ensuring that Sure Start works in every different area.
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