Jowell called it her proudest achievement. Now, it feels like the last relic of a government that cared about the lives of the vulnerableby Frances Ryan / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The death of Tessa Jowell this weekend has led to tributes from across the political aisle. Inevitably, it’s the 2012 Olympic Games that is largely being referred to as Jowell’s key legacy: as culture secretary, she was instrumental in the UK’s drive to win the Games for London. But it’s Sure Start—the early years initiative launched in 1998—that’s surely her greatest success.
Jowell herself thought as much. In an interview with the Guardian in 2015 looking back at her career, Jowell said that introducing the child centres was her “proudest” achievement. Initially targeted at the poorest 20 per cent of wards in England, throughout her time in the cabinet, Sure Start grew into a network of 4,000 children’s centres across the country.
It feels particularly aching, then, that at the time of Jowell’s death this legacy is being quietly demolished. Last month, it emerged that as many as 1,000 Sure Start centres have shut nationwide since 2010—double the official closure estimates—with many remaining centres offering only a fraction of the services they once did. As unprecedented council cuts hit, the Sutton Trust, which conducted the research, found the service is now “hollowed out” from cuts, resulting in thousands of children missing out on support. Grimly, the study warns that, as local authority budgets continue to shrink, further drastic reductions are on the way.
Cuts across the country
Over the last six months, I’ve been speaking with parents across the country fighting to keep their local centres open. Put a pin in a map and you’ll find a Sure Start crisis. In Leicestershire, the county council has just finished consulting on closing over half of the area’s centres. As of April, 25 centres in Warwickshire began shutting their doors. Meanwhile, Somerset is set to scrap two thirds of its services.
That this is happening at a time of growing need is particularly brutal. Austerity will have cast an extra 1.5m children into poverty by 2021, with teachers already widely reporting pupils coming to school malnourished and dirty. Meanwhile, children’s services generally are crumbling; since 2012, anything from youth centres to short breaks for disabled children have seen total cuts of almost £1bn.
Whilst the NHS and schools make the headlines, Sure Start is being dismantled with relatively little fuss. Children’s centres in communities are rarely given the credit they deserve, often seen as representing glorified babysitting or a “soft service”—one that can be pleasant to have but that can soon be scrapped at a time of “tough economic decisions.”
Perhaps this comes down to class or gender prejudice: as the restrictions of tax credits on Universal Credit have shown, support for low income children is easily removed, whilst caring responsibilities are too often dismissed as women’s—and therefore lesser—labour.
Every child matters
But as any parent who’s used their local centre will tell you, Sure Start has always been a key health and social service, providing anything from wellbeing advice to pregnant women, postnatal depression help groups for new mums, to interactive play for learning toddlers.
When it’s properly funded, Sure Start works: a comprehensive study by the University of Oxford in 2015 into children’s centres in England found the centres benefited families who regularly attended classes in poorer areas, contributing to less disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health, and improved social skills.
Looking back, each Sure Start Centre was more than a building or even the services they provide—they were the embodiment of the principle that every child matters and an aim that Britain could actually be an equal society.
It’s hard not to think that the destruction of Sure Start centres speaks to something bigger. We are witnessing the unprecedented abandonment of the social safety net; whereas once ending child poverty was an ambition for ministers, they are now content to see infants so destitute they are sleeping on cardboard and scavenging in bins for food. What’s worse, we are in a political climate that is increasingly so toxic that even a commitment to children’s wellbeing seemingly can’t be common ground.
Imagine a minister in Theresa May’s cabinet proposing a universal service designed with the aim of giving all children “the best possible start in life,” rather than empty platitudes. Imagine a Britain in which that would be greeted with applause from the public and press instead of suspicion.
As benefits cuts leave disabled people hungry, and dementia patients are stuck in hospital because there’s no social care at home, Sure Start almost feels the last relic of another time—one in which it was accepted that the state had a responsibility to help tackle the disadvantages that unfairly blight countless people’s lives.
In the wake of Tessa Jowell’s death, it feels as if Sure Start represents what a Labour government can do. As each centre closes its doors, we are learning ever too painfully of what gets torn away when Labour falls out of power.