This week we learned that Suffolk County Council are likely to close around half of the Children’s Centres in Suffolk.
The Sure Start programme was launched by the Labour Government in 1998 in order to provide essential advice and help for families with small children, and Children’s Centres were established from 2001. The Government was concerned that by the time they started school far too many children had already fallen behind. Children’s Centres were designed to work with parents to help improve their children’s language, their health, their nutrition and their self-confidence. The Centres were always open to all parents and small children – it was important that there should be no “them and us”. Of course some parents need more help than others, but all parents and small children could benefit from mixing with each other and learning from each other. The main aim was to provide our children with the best possible start in life, and to narrow the gap between children in more affluent and less affluent areas.
The National Evaluation of Sure Start reporting in 2010, identified real differences made to children and parents’ lives. Children who had access to a Children’s Centre were less likely to be overweight and had better physical health. Parents were able to get more involved in their children’s learning, were helped to give their children a more stable home life, were less likely to suffer from depression, and did not need to punish their children so much. Parents reported that by the time their children were 5 years old they were enjoying life more and were more able to learn than they would have been without Children’s Centres. And crucially, unemployed parents whose families had access to Children’s Centres were more likely to be able to get into work, so that Children’s Centres actually helped reduce unemployment and poverty.
During the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives tried to rubbish Labour’s warnings about Conservative plans. No Children’s Centres would close under a Conservative Government, they said. And yet almost as soon as they formed a Government in 2010 they removed the protection for Children’s Centre budgets. At first Conservative-run Suffolk County Council simply reduced the level of services provided and the qualified staff available to help. Then in 2014 they closed Centres right across our County, including in areas with some of the most disadvantaged families. Parents and children joined with Labour Councillors to fight the closures, but to no avail. Suffolk County Council claimed that they would be able to run the services that used to be delivered in the Centres that were closed in other places or by other means, but in fact the number of families accessing the Centres simply fell, and the number of services being delivered in the Centres that remained open also fell.
A further study of Children’s Centres published by the Department for Education just before Christmas (presumably so no-one would notice) in 2015 showed that they were still helping support the mental health of parents and children, but that the good effects were already being undermined by the cuts.
Anything that local councils or national government can do to help families stick together and help each other will pay huge dividends in terms of their happiness, their ability to contribute to our society, and yes, in terms of saving public money on unemployment pay, health costs and the cost of social care. Anything that local Councils do which might contribute to splitting families up is not just unhelpful, it is morally wrong.
Children who start life with the right medical treatment, eating healthily, learning how to keep clean, mixing with other children, practising their talking and listening, and sharing more activities with their parents, will grow up happier, smarter and healthier. Parents who use Children’s Centres will be more likely to get the right medical and financial advice, less likely to become lonely or depressed, and more likely to find work. I believe that Children’s Centres in Suffolk have helped to keep families together. The reasons for setting up Children’s Centres have not gone away, and it seems mad to close them down.
In the words of Michael Marmot, president of the World Medical Association: “Sure Start Children’s Centres can improve parenting and have a favourable impact on parent- child interactions. The better resourced the centre, the more favourable the impact. Closing these centres, or reducing their funding, is a false economy.”