Mark Raeburn: 6 minute read

Early support and prevention services need to be applied at the start of a vulnerable child's life to steer them in the right direction

Getting the right start in life is essential. Children are products of their surroundings and a tough childhood can lead to being ‘bounced around the system’. Early support services like Sure Start and Early Help teams can counteract these issues and ensure that each and every child receives the best start at life possible. With this in mind, you have to ask yourself why these services are closing down across the country, leaving children to fend for themselves.

It is a mystery to me as to why these services have been cut, when you consider the wasted money in the country. Take the money that has been given to companies for Brexit, for example. Now, I am not saying that this project is a waste but when you look at the extra money that has been pumped in to it, you have to wonder where that money could have been spent. For projects like the Crossrail, costs have a total overspend for the project reaching more than £3bn over budget. Whilst the project is worthwhile, imagine the number children’s lives that could have been transformed with just that overspend amount.

Where did these services come from?

Back in 1998, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, announced the initial Sure Start programme. It was originated by the treasury and came from the aim of ‘giving children the best possible start in life’. This most noble of ideals was to be projected through improvement in childcare, early education, health and family support. It looked at all of the services around the individual, much like a MASH Hub, in that it acknowledged that there are multiple lines of influence into the individual in need.

It was not an original concept, as it took learnings from similar programmes in America, Australia and Canada but it original for the UK and whilst it was implemented differently in Wales, Scotland and Northern, the aim was the same. To make a difference to the lives of children across the country and create the best start possible. Or as the Member of Parliament responsible for launching the initiative, Tessa Jowell, MP said:

"I am very proud of setting up Sure Start, because the first three years of a child's life are absolutely critical in determining the chances they have subsequently"

We agree with the comments made by Tessa in 2015. A child needs a supportive environment to be brought up in, they need to learn from you and those around. They need to form their first friendships by being introduced to other children. They don't need to be locked in a downward spiral that is difficult to get out from.

Child Poverty

What is eye opening about this is that are millions of children living in poverty in the UK, with current statistics pointing to the fact that more than four million children are living in poverty (based off figures from 2016/17). This is a staggering amount and the vast majority of the time, this is not due to neglect on the parents behalf.

In the age of austerity we are leaving children behind to grow up in a world that does not help them. Families in work are struggling to make ends meet and often times cannot afford to provide their children with a healthy breakfast. This is not because they do not love them, it is simply because they do not earn enough. This is when free healthy breakfasts and school meals are essential, the latter being a policy that was considered for removal by the current government. These little things can help children get the best start possible, when their families are unable to provide.

Child poverty goes beyond food as very low income families are also unable to heat their houses, leaving their children cold. This in term can lead to illness and increased time off of school, adding to the evidence and reinforcing how important, Sure Start style policies and offerings are. The effects are long-lasting and by the time that children living in poverty reach GCSE age, there is a 28% gap between children receiving free school meals and their wealthier peers. This in turn links to earnings potential, all of which has sprung from childhood and the world around them, the family they were born into and the society they live in.

Health is another important aspect to consider, with Men and Women in the most deprived areas living nearly a whole decade less than their wealthier counterparts. They also spend nearly 15% less of their lives in good health. This, once again, emerging from childhood and the environment that these individuals have been raised in.

Considering all of this, you have to ask yourself the obvious question, why would you close down essential Early Help and Sure Start services? Yes, money is the obvious answer here but with the current estimates placing the broader societal costs of child poverty at £29 billion a year, you have to wonder why the government is not looking at the bigger picture.

From the year that Sure Start was introduced, to the first year of the coalition government (the start of the dismantling of services), 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty. This is a figure to be proud of. Nearly one million children were lifted out of poverty through the introduction of Sure Start.

One of the project studies that took place around Sure Start was entitled, The Evaluation of Children's Centres in England (ECCE), and it ran from 2009 until 2015. It concluded that:

"Children's Centres set up to support parents of young children can improve the mental health of mothers and functioning of families but that these benefits
are being eroded by cuts."

Rachel Dickinson

The new head of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) came out to advocate for maintaining early help and Sure Start centres recently. Two of her top priorities as president are:

  1. Push for a robust government response to child poverty
  2. Reversing cuts to early help

The rise of childhood poverty has come with a rise in demand for children’s services. The number of Children in Need rose by 7% between the years of 2013 and 2018, to now total more than 400,000. In addition to this the number of children requiring child protection plans has also risen, to now total more than 50,000.

These rises will continue until the government tackles the problem. We need cross-party unity, not Brexit squabbles. We need targeted action, or as Ms. Dickinson put it:

“I will continue to raise the issue of disgraceful levels of child and family poverty in this country loudly in my conversations with ministers and others and to highlight the unintended impact of some government policies which make the lives of children and their families harder.”

The government has increased spending on looked after children and safeguarding by 20 and 10% respectively, between the years of 2010 and 2018. This is great to see but it can also be seen as funding the wrong end of the funnel, with a 69% reduction in expenditure being recorded during the same period for youth services. In addition to this a 58% decrease in finance for Sure Start children’s centres was also recorded.

The funding is there, it is simply being applied at the wrong time. Yes, we live in an era of austerity and need to make savings but cutting the funding for services at the start of life, seems illogical. We know that the earlier you get in to intervene in a child’s life, the higher the probability of success, in regards to improving children’s lives.

In Conclusion

Early support, early intervention, early help, Sure Start type services or whichever label you would like to place on them are essential. They offer a lifeline to those who are most vulnerable that need a ship to steer them. We can all be guilty in life of not paying enough attention and having our own problems, but when these issues affect our children, we need to take action as quickly as possible.

Issues such as child poverty can follow people throughout their lives but by getting in early, you can steer children in the correct direction. Families can suffer from a range of issues from alcoholism to drugs and poverty, regardless of what it is, it needs to be tackled early. Sure Start and Early Help sites are a lifeline and set children on the right path. Funding down the line, when they are in their greatest need is quite simply, too late.

A family that is working through problems with alcohol needs a positive outlet for their children. They need to be steered on the right course lest they be lead down a costly path. Costly for society in terms of the money required to push them around each service, and costly for the individual. The cost will ultimately vary but we can all conclude that the inevitable end is one that is undesirable, such as prison or death by addiction.

Early Help and Sure Start services deliver benefits to communities across the country. Yes, they cost money but they pan out in the long run, when they are used effectively. Closing these services is a short term saving that will result in long-term costs. In an era of austerity and Brexit, all we have is each other and so why should we sell the most vulnerable short?