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Sure Start

Volume 717: debated on Monday 1 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Sure Start programmes were set up during the past year; and how they will be evaluated.

My Lords, during the period from January to December 2009, 472 Sure Start children’s centres were designated. The DCSF’s guidance to children’s centre leaders and local authorities contains an expectation that they should evaluate the effectiveness of their services. The national evaluation of Sure Start started in 2001 and last reported in 2008. The DCSF has recently commissioned an evaluation of the implementation and impact of the full range of children's centres; its first report is expected in late 2010.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive reply. Can she say how many Sure Start centres now exist in total and how the question of outreach to the most vulnerable groups is working? There has been concern about this—has it been addressed?

My Lords, we are on track to achieve our target of 3,500 Sure Start centres by this month; that is one in every community—a stark contrast to 1997, when there was none. The Government’s vision, built on experience and evaluation so far, is for outreach to be very much part of the work of Sure Start centres. It is in stark contrast to the policy of the party opposite, which I understand is committed to exchanging the work of outreach workers in favour of closing down some Sure Start centres; I think the figure is something like one in four.

In view of the announcements today about secondary school choices, can the Minister say what percentage of toddlers got their first choice of Sure Start centre? Does she agree that parents vote with their feet when it comes to evaluating Sure Start centres and that the best centres are very oversubscribed by the middle classes? What are the Government doing to ensure that the most vulnerable people get those places?

My Lords, my view is that 100 per cent of parents have been able to achieve their choice of Sure Start centre in their community with this Government’s vision because we are committed to ensuring that there is a Sure Start children’s centre in every community. That is a commitment to a universal service, which was achieved when we created a statutory footing for Sure Start centres in the ASCL Bill. We must ensure that we really drive through our commitment to Sure Start centres by ensuring that there is outreach to disadvantaged communities; we learnt at the start that many of the Sure Start centres in the disadvantaged communities were very conscious of excluding parents who were on their borders. That is not necessary. We also know that Sure Start centres in more advantaged areas are used by children from disadvantaged areas, and that is why it is so important that we have a universal service.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask for clarification. The Conservative Party supports Sure Start centres but it wants to ensure that they respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and poorest families in this country. Following on from the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, what has happened to the extra £79 million for outreach workers? Has it been used and are there such workers in all Sure Start centres?

Let us be absolutely clear about the Conservative Party’s commitment to Sure Start centres. As I understand it, it is about taking funding from Sure Start and putting it into other priorities. The shadow Chancellor could not confirm that that was not the case, so let us be clear about Conservative policy here.

My Lords, I understand the sentiment behind my noble friend’s Question but is it not the case that if Sure Start schemes were confined primarily to the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, they would become stigmatised and, as a result, children in those groups would not use them?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We have to recognise that Sure Start centres have a great deal to offer every single community. By offering a universal service, we support families from both disadvantaged and affluent backgrounds, but it is the best way of reaching those who would not otherwise access these services.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said but does she not agree that, if we are to answer industry’s need for numerate and literate young people, we must invest earlier than we do? Is it not counterproductive to invest so much in getting young people in the 14 to 19 age range to read, write and count properly when we know that good early years—pre-school and primary—education will be much more effective in ensuring the workforce that we need?

I believe that the noble Earl’s analysis is right. We on this side of the House are saying that we have to invest in Sure Start and that it is not an either/or situation. We see the benefits of investing in Sure Start come through the system, with children who are more ready for school and who display better behaviour, and parents who are more equipped to cope with the challenges of a modern society. We see these benefits coming through the system and, in time, with another Labour Government we will see a much better outcome for 16 to 19 year-olds too.

My Lords, is the Minister confident that Sure Start coverage is as she describes in rural areas, where population density is much lower? I do not believe that the ability to access Sure Start is as good in those areas as she has led us to believe.

The noble Baroness touches on a very important point. As we have made clear in the guidance that we have made available, we have to be careful that in rural areas local authorities have the flexibility to look at different kinds of models. Essentially, a Sure Start centre in every community must be the aspiration but, if a local authority can find a better way of meeting the needs of its service users in a rural community, we have to listen to that.

My Lords, will the Minister define “community” for us all, and will she say how many Sure Start programmes are based in rural areas?

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness about the number of Sure Start centres in rural areas. However, it is clear that we know what a community is. It is a place where a reasonable number of parents have reasonable access to a children’s centre, and you will also find there a community school, a children’s centre and possibly a walk-in centre. These are all facilities that a Labour Government are committed to promoting.

My Lords, in view of the great success that there has clearly been in recruiting staff at Sure Start centres, including outreach workers, are there any lessons to be drawn about recruiting social services and social care staff in general?

My Lords, we must always be committed to learning the lessons. We know that there are significant pressures on children’s social services—I think that that is what the noble Baroness is referring to. Working in a Sure Start children’s centre can be a very positive experience and we should be learning from the training that is made available from the interaction with parents and making sure that those lessons are learnt across children’s services.