Uncertain Starts

In which Lia Mandaracas and Alexandra Chatfield look at the impact closing Sure Start centres has had across Medway..

Part 1 / Lia Mandaracas

Sure Start, since its introduction in 1999 transformed the lives of families with under 5s. By 2009 there were over 3600 centres with most of them concentrated in disadvantaged areas. In mid-2016, Medway Council made significant savings with a staffing restructure and reduced sessions, which came with assurances that this was the only way to save the full provision. By early 2017 they proposed closing all centres in favour of four “super hubs” that would serve wide areas and 0-19 rather than 0-5. Due to public pressure they relented slightly and created the super hubs with satellite centres to run some sessions, although these centres no longer had continuity of staff or full time opening hours. I thought I would take a look at the effects on service users, the impact on the councils Key Performance Indicators, and Ofsted results compared to other parts of the country.

For background here are two speeches I gave to the council drawing on evidence from other councils to speculate on what closing Medway Sure Starts might mean.

Since the council inspections mentioned in the speeches, Leeds City Council has also been investigated and is the only core city to have kept its full provision. It’s also the only core city to have received an outstanding rating.

The changes to Medway’s provision led to a drop of over 100,000 visits last year, and a significant reduction in services offered, especially in baby weighing services and services for 2-5 year olds. Teachers have said they’ve already seen a drop in school readiness of pupils starting reception, and parents have said that the timetabling provided is often confusing and out of date meaning they were turning up to sessions that had been cancelled or moved. Community groups and schools have tried to fill some of the gaps – there is a very well received and attended messy play session in Rochester at St Peter’s Church run by local parents – and some pre-schools now offer drop in stay and play sessions. But this can’t replace having regular staff dedicated to family well being, and the links to other services, which just aren’t being accessed now.

One of many things that was overlooked were the auxiliary services that Sure Start offered. My local centre allowed counselling services to use the rooms for free which they told me they saw as as much a benefit to the families and community they served as the work they did with the children. This is no longer offered and the nearest service is at least a bus journey away. Given that maternal mental health was one of the biggest concerns cited in the consultation, it’s sad to see so many respondents to an informal Facebook post say that they no longer access counselling services as they cannot afford the travel.

In late 2017, I asked Cllr Mackness (portfolio holder for Children’s Services) the following question:

“As the sure start proposals have been pushed through and there seems to still be no consensus on what the health and wellbeing centres will look like or what support will be available from them, what does Councillor Mackness plan to do about the fact that Universal Credit is set to plunge 1,300 Medway children into abject poverty and potential homelessness (based on statistics from children in poverty action group), is the Council able to handle such a crisis?”

His staggering reply was that they were now better placed to help the most vulnerable as the centres had limited their offering to those identified as at risk, and that two DWP staff would be working within the four hubs. The most recent figures show that Medway currently has 600 homeless children and that figure is rising, so clearly the honest answer to my question should have been “no, this council is not prepared to handle such a crisis.”

Medway has yet to have an inspection under the new structure, but based on the other councils results and feedback from service users it is not looking good. The council was repeatedly warned that this was the likely outcome. Targeting a service at those already identified as vulnerable leaves huge holes that other families can fall through. It’s a sad state of affairs when our most vulnerable members of society are neglected like this.

Part 2 / Alexandra Chatfield

I started the Save Sure Start campaign in Medway after learning that Medway Council had taken £60,000 away from the Sure Start budget to fund a fireworks event. I was a service user and volunteer at the time and, for some reason, I felt I had to do something about it; to give back to what had been an invaluable resource to me after suffering post-natal depression. I attended my local centre two to three times a week for support and to socialise with other mums. At my lowest, I even cried on the shoulder of a play worker one afternoon and I’ll never forget the support I received. From the play workers, social workers, volunteers, health visitors, to the administrative staff, these people are experts on services available in our community. For any problem, there was a session and a service for that issue, and the staff held your hand through it.

At a scrutiny meeting, I pled with the council on why our centres were so important and why we needed them to stay. Many Tory councillors looked away, stared at their phones during my speech and those of the many other professionals and services users that also spoke. At the end I got an awkward hand shake from Cllr Wendy Purdy who told me she was “glad” I had gotten my “life back together”. It was obvious she hadn’t been listening at all.

The campaign had success: We saved 13 out of 19 centres, but alas they created their hub system and successfully ran it into the ground. Instead of the 15 and more sessions at one centre, we now have less than 5 at each one. Sure the timetables look good and busy as they are grouped together into regions but in reality this leaves only two universal sessions per centre. One open session for 0-1s and one session for 2-4s. This means in theory a parent should be able to just “turn up” but in reality centres are overcrowded due to the reduced timetable and staff are now forced to use a booking system.

The booking system means those who are most vulnerable and want to reach out will not have immediate access to a professional, and might isolate themselves from services when they most need them. This half term I have received many complaints about being turned away from sessions as the numbers were far too high for the staff to handle. Not only were people being turned away, the staff were singling out children by age and restricting entry. This meant that parents with more than one child have been feeling totally isolated from the centres and the relationships between the centres and parents are growing distant.

We cannot blame the staff. They have only been allowed to run a limited amount of sessions because the new hub system and can no longer accommodate everyone.

I feel I need to remind everyone that Sure Start is not a playgroup. It is not where mums meet up for the convenience. It is because it is run by Early Years professionals that give out invaluable advice on parenting, preparing for school, toilet training, breastfeeding, caring for new babies as well as having specialist support for young mothers, post-natal depression, benefits, domestic violence, and opportunities for part time education. I know many mums who started out by volunteering at Sure Start and went on to become teachers, support staff or childminders.

To help the relationship between the centres and parents to get us through this tough time of adjusting to a now over stretched service, I have worked with the centres to set up a Parents Forum. As Lia said, Primary Schools are already seeing the effects. I really fear the hubs are losing their connection to the community and under a Tory council, it is only going to become worse.

Lia Mandaracas is a Medway Labour candidate for River. Alexandra Chatfield is a Medway Labour candidate for Rainham South.

One Reply to “Uncertain Starts”

  1. When I said outside Gun Wharf at the very beginning ‘If we can save half the centres we have done a good job’ I thought that would be a success. But it relied upon the LA actually maintaining services at those centres, not deliberately running them into the ground.

    It feels as if its too late to fix this disaster. Now the pressure is passed to the schools, who are already massively underfunded – but hey, that’s not the council’s problem since they’re nearly all academies now. Way to wash your hands of responsibility for local children, Medway Council.

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