Sure Start: His generation


 My son will be twenty-one this year. I’m compiling an album for him. Photo’s, snippets of stories and little quotes from his life so far. It is difficult to extract all those first moments (it’s hard enough to remember yesterday sometimes). Of course  I have written things down, sometimes specific moments but mostly I recall fragments of his life. I have found that snatches of memory fire at me; moments with middlest or smallest trigger recollections of his early years. But the traces are  dim and often memories are blurred. 

As I try to  remember it occurs to me how different my experience of being becoming a mother at 21 and 37 has been. Almost as if each time a child was born , a different mother emerged. Accounting for this are the obvious maturational differences that accompany being 21 and 37 respectively , alongside personal circumstance. Additionally, it occurs to me there was a stark variation  in the services I received post partum; as I reflect on these the memories that make me smile emerge , and I say out loud ,”Sure start”.

Back in 2000 I lived in Wales, two years after the then chancellor Gordon Brown announced the curation of Sure Start, an early intervention programme for under 5s and their families. This was an initiative driven by the aim , “to give every child the best possible star in life”, through improving the “educational and life chances of socially and economically disadvantaged children”. This eye brow raising yet heroic strategic aim was to be achieved through a programme service the  Sure Start Learning Programme (SSLP), targeting the most disadvantaged families in the most deprived areas. Essentially this took the form of targeted provision in areas home to families of acute need. Over five years it evolved into a ten year year strategy, at its core, a universal programme for all, the aim to provide a service and build a Sure Start Childrens Centre in every community.

When eldest was born we lived in Wrecsam.  I dont remember there being a Sure Start  in the area of Hightown. We were certainly never signposted to groups or a centre. Perhaps there was a sign on the community centre but I don’t  remember there being anything behind it.  Local services , such as a nursery, health visiting clinic and housing were very far apart and living on an estate border was a hindrance with some professionals arguing that we should attend another clinic for baby weighing. Regardless the result was that we tended to get missed out of invites to facilities and had to do our own legwork to find them. Often we relied on the Health Visitors. Not that Health Visitor calls were particularly frequent- initially every week  but these soon peetered down to every 6 weeks and by the end of the first year had ceased completely with me having to chase up the first year check . For any new Mums or Dads reading ,  this would not be a shock but back then it was unusual made more so as we were definitely one of those families which would have benefited from the service. We struggled and there was violence.

This lack of service though was not apparent until I moved to Greenstead in Colchester, when eldest was 3 and I was pregnant with middlest. In terms of social and economic depriavtion Wrecsam and Greenstead did not stand far apart from another , however from the census of 2001 Greenstead scored 19/20 with 20 equating the highest and worst end of a scale measuring socio economic deprivation. In an attempt to acknowledge this and to address it, Greenstead two years prior had recieved £750,000, “to develop services for Mums and Dads”,  and it was reflected in the provision across Greensteads locality in the St. Annes Ward. The childrens centre was situated above the Greenstead Community Centre, with a purpose built pre-school setting and additional stay and play serices held at two further locations on the estate. The main building was used for one to one sessions, training for parents, play groups, new baby groups and a dads group. The SS Team also hosted trips for families on low income and intermittent groups on healthy eating, reading, communication and keeping your children safe and well.

I recall being given the Sure Start timetable when I  arrived on on the estate and despite my anxiety about being in a new area,   I started to attend. The benefts were tangible; they provided structure, helped us to forge relationships and educated me in areas of parenting that  I had not thought about. The staff were engaging and the outreach service did exactly what it said it would do- it reached out. So if, as a single parent of two who was in the midst of a domestic violence  investigation you did not attend a group, they would come to you. Check in with you. They could support you to take steps that were important for you and your family.  Another key service was the provision of regular, local health visitor clinics which gave a critical point of contact for me and hundreds of other single mums on the estate, at the most isolating part of parenthood.

Beyond the baby years the provision of childcare, a small provision which split its availability into morning and afternoon sessions, allowed me a precious couple of hours down time, which given the absence of family support, was invaluable. It undoubtedly balanced my mental health and when I found work as a voluntary project worker with Home Start, it allowed me to undertake this. 

It is improtant to note that Sure Start provisions could be quite different from one another; service mangers at the time stated informally that there was no specific form or template from which provisions were developed and this was substantiated by visiting other provisions or just knowing people who used SSC in other areas. We definitely had access to an exemplary setting. Such variations in delivery offered a stark reminder of the state of balance between the nations that despite the united status, across a comparatively small divide there was such a difference in service.  Irrespective of the difference the initiative grew and by the later noughties there were 3,500 childrens centres  and the provision of the service accounted for £1.8 bllion (2018-19) of our national annual spending.

Despite its popularity and relative success the absolute success of Sure start  was seen to be minimal. This was based on an evaluation strategy that was on going and in 2010 cuts were made to Sure Start Funding as part of the austerity measures implemented by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. This appeared at odds with another development in politics , the 2010 Child Poverty Act which  aimed to end all children living in poverty by 2020. At the time much evidence pointed to a reduction in service with the focus on its economic contributions however others including Tracey Bain, then the Early Years Minister,  supported continued funding stating that Sure Start played a critical role in children’s health, as well as their development (The Guardian June 2019). Further support pointed to the fall in the number of cases attending hospital due to accidents or illness as evidence of the importance of early years support provided by Sure Start staff. Critics though were quick to admonish the work, pointing out that causal relationships were little or insignificant. Cuts followed and centres reduced scope of service. 

There followed counter arguments  which directed attention to the problems  inherent in longitudinal surveys such as thise utilised in evaluating SSCC.  These highlighted problems of confounding variables in establishing causal inference. They also argued that validity is further pushed into the realms of speculation when you consider that what was measured was derived from the original programme aims ie child development. This was despite there being a shift in the the focus of the work implemented in the centres. This latter point was raised by Norman Glass, who criticised the evaluation on the grounds that the move towards the focus from child development to supporting Mothers’ back into employment was not accompanied with a change in targets, which were the focus of the evaluation strategy. Essentially you can’t say a has no impact on b if a does not exist in the first place. The shift to local authority control rather than being run by boards including parents would also have had a huge impact upon programmes.

also remember the scrabbling around for numbers to validate the centres wider relevance and the impact of this.  Pre- 2005 work focused upon families with under 5s in specific areas; centres linked to immediate population.. In 2005, the change to the centre programme was accompanied by need to fill seats and so doors opened to individuals out of catchment. I remember this being a  bone of contention amongst the groups of the centre.Admittedly,  I myself experienced a twinge of annoyance that all of a sudden there was an influx of people from estates adjacent to ours. People with choice who  had exercised their freedom to choose and had chose to attend ‘our’ centre.  Flattering some might suppose but it also meant that there were some families in the locality who were unable to attend as they had taken their place. For us it was not tit for tat it was a case of protecting our own resources and also our sense of esteem which was very easily tarnished. It was as if we were not enough and for some this resulted in a rejection of the service.  Widening participation also created  methodological problems in evaluation at it detracted or confounded  from original modelling on impact on deprived families. 

Regardless, provisions stabilised and then declined. We still attended everyday taking our place one group or another as  evidenced in pictures, I find in my search for memories for eldests book. However the introduction of austerity measures which  influenced target setting and provision was felt .The number of children in poverty has since risen by 600,000 since 2010. 4.2 million youngsters in the UK – or 30 per cent – are existing below the poverty line (that’s nine children in a class of 30) and the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission is now forecasting a further huge rise to 5.2 million children in poverty by 2022. No doubt many will point to the pandemic for its contribution towards these numbers but there is no avoiding the fact that these numbers existed before the pandemic and will exist long after the effects of Cornavirus fade in other areas. Sure Start may not eliminate such poverty but it supported those living within the confines of a restricted life and reducing its capacity will have come as a double blow to those children in need.

I searched for comparative data, a control group from which to measure outcomes against or perhaps some information on the families that had used the sure start services.

My search revealed none instead I found a wealth of articles, some lamenting the lack of services for father’s (not in Greenstead) others which argued that it did fiscal harm, stealing the money from our budget

Such criticisms have been suggested as weak, even selfish. I would concur; if you consider that the economics of the programme outweigh the importance of what it did on a moral level. Because what these studies don’t capture is that Sure Star made people feel important. At the heart of these services was time. Many of these service users are and were intergenerational benefit survivors, 3rd perhaps even 4th generation benefit families who have nothing but what they know, like the rest of us, to pass onto their children. Except that their knowledge was and is  watered down by deprivation. Sure Start offered substance.

To break this cycle takes time, it takes generations for behaviours to change. At least one for people to even a knowledge that the change is positive and something they could achieve. For a few years though there was a hope that came from people, the staff in particular who made us feel, well human.  For some, like myself the hope was transformative.

In 2009 just before middlest started school the area hosted two centres, the Greenstead centre and The Oak Tree service, a purpose built building, beautiful in its aesthetic, serving the St. Annes or White City area in Colchester. They both still exist; both areas still sit in the margins of poverty however the picture nationwide suggests that 1 in 3 centres has closed and spending has been now reduced to a third of the original budget. A more recent evaluation suggests that against the original figures, the NHS has made of saving of 6% due to the influence of Sure Start with reductions in infection rates in under 5s and reductions in hospital admissions for children under the age of 11, the most cited outcomes. Whether they are the most significant is still not known;  there is still an absence of a study that documents the signficance of the  factors  by the original intervention. NESS research has been conducted but by its own accounts is not robust. It seems absurd to infer that Sure Start has had little or no impact.

I wonder what happened to all of the Sure Start Generation children? There is a suggestion that there is on going evaluation. Perhaps this might include those that it actually reached. We are one such family and I am secure in my position in support of the continuation of such provision certain that without its part in our lives at a very critical point we would have struggled immensley and my children woud not have achieved what they have today.

Neither would I have gone back.

When I had smallest the change in service provision was stark. The health visitor service had been reduced to once a week for four weeks, extended to two weeks due to post partum anxiety. After that the responsibility for contacting them laid with you. An ex collegaue who struggled with post natal depression  contacted her health visitor and 4 months later after a teary phone call to the clinic she was responded to. I sought solace in my past experiences and after a very difficult birth i took refuge at the old centre and was cheered to find two of the old staff still present. They were however the only remaining features of the old Sure Start, a skeleton service remained holding what was now a very thin skin; the creche had disappeared as had 75% of the groups. The looming takeover from yet another provider  had distracted those remaining and the fact that I thought I was still welcome pointed to the wider area which was now catered for in what had once been a locals only service (I live 3 miles away from the centre). I attended two groups after which there was no progression or suggestions of feeder groups. I remembered then the Sure Start ethos of continuity in face of adversity. As I left the centre after the last session I learned that the core group had started an informal group of their own. Those of us who came from the wider area had not been invited.  I felt offended but then I realised what I had done  – I had stolen the place of a Mum from the area just like those Mums from from the next estate had done, all those years ago. I was mortified at my lack of awareness but at the same time interested that I did not even for a moment contemplate this. I went into  the group in my mind as an insider but was received as an outsider. I still felt at home there.I took my rejection as it was.intended to be received,thanks but no thanks but thought about it.  This provision is as important to those people today as it was to us all those years ago. I had come into and enjoyed the nostalgic undertones but i had failed to see the significance of my presence just as the government fails to see how the presence of the Sure Start Learning Programmes featured so positively in many people’s lives. Looking and planning with eyes shut tightly.

Last week nearly four years after my last session ,I  searched for the contact details for the sure start centre which became central to my life all those years ago. I searched under Sure Start and Greenstead Colchester and the listing gave me a telephone number and a registered address. The lady who picked up the phone referred to the service as the Essex child and family well being service.

I hesitated- “is this the greenstead sure start centre”, I asked?

“This the hub”, she said , “we dont give out direct numbers for our centres.” 

I swallowed hard after the call, feeling a sense of loss for what had been. Perhaps in my own way I was grappling around for memories of when oldest was smallest.  Searching for snippets for my book of 21 years for my eldest son. I was feeling the frustration of the realisation that you sometimes rely on others to help you remember and in this case the others were the sure start community.


Ultimately, any  evaluation could not capture this. The true impact of such a service are the benefits of being part of a community, where lives could be found and pasts could be repatriated with the future. It somehow speaks to me  of the moral significance of Motherhood as viewed by our society that such a service is slowly withdrawn, especially away from its original focus upon child development.

In the end what it offered was just what it set out to do, a sure start in life. And in the community of Greenstead that’s what it gave me and my children

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