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…