Sure Start is totemic for Labour. Tony Blair called it “one of New Labour’s greatest achievements”. So it is no surprise that as part of Labour’s summer offensive, Lucy Powell should release statistics showing that over 600 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, with more having reduced their services, hours and staff.
When Policy Exchange looked at this last year, we actually found the picture was much more nuanced than that. In fact, as of April 2013, only 35 centres – less than 1% of the total – had actually closed – with the vast majority of ‘closures’ being accounted for by mergers between centres or groups of centres (meaning they don’t show up as individual registrations any more on the national figures). And 67% of the population still lived within 1 mile of a centre. But the purpose in writing our report was because we, and all parties, share a belief that high quality development in the early years, including that which can be delivered via Sure Start, is one of the most powerful predictors for how a child will do in later life.
And beneath the headline claims about closures, the rest of Lucy Powell’s piece is actually a bold and welcome attempt to set out how Labour would handle one of its most cherished services if it returned to government in 2015. Much of it closely mirrors our own recommendations. The headline – “big reform, not big cash” – means that there will be no return to pre 2010 levels of Sure Start funding, nor will there be a ringfence protecting it from other areas of council spending. The article talks of an acceptance that the service must prioritise families in poorer areas, with a real focus on evidence based provision and tackling issues early on. Our research found that this doesn’t always happen now. In fact, of the funding cuts that Sure Start centres have faced since 2010 (an estimated 28%), our research showed that these had been imposed almost evenly across centres regardless of the circumstances of the local population. And 14% of centres were still based in the richest 30% of the country, where only 5% of the most deprived children live.
How to address these challenges of big reform without throwing money at them is exactly the right question to ask. And it is likely that the answers will not be well received by many within the Labour party. Lucy Powell deserves credit for taking these arguments on.