Keep Sure Start, urges poverty tsar

image]Sure Start – a scheme brought in under Labour in a bid to help all children fulfil their potential – should not suffer in the cuts to be announced next month, says Frank Field, the Government’s poverty tsar.

Sure Start – a scheme brought in under Labour in a bid to help all children fulfil their potential – should not suffer in the cuts to be announced next month, says Frank Field, the Government’s poverty tsar.
In the run-up to the comprehensive spending review in October, Mr Field has warned the provision should be kept intact to ensure children receive equal opportunities whatever their background.
Sure Start was first set up by Labour – its children’s centres are dedicated to giving advice and support to parents of the under-fives – and Mr Field has voiced his support for its endeavours and continuation, but said the provision might need to be adapted and changed.
He said Sure Start needed to be a ”provider, coordinator and commissioner of services”.
Mr Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, formerly the welfare reform minister in Labour’s first term, has been tasked by Prime Minister David Cameron to head up the Coalition Government’s Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.
The Review is centred on investigating what happens during the first five years of a child’s life that impacts on a child’s life-time opportunities.
Addressing a conference on child poverty at the Institute for Fiscal Studies,  he told an audience he had already submitted a report to the Prime Minister at the end of the parliamentary session to give him some idea of the progress the Review had made during its first two months.
He said he would be sending a second more detailed report next week, outlining what some of his main recommendations are likely to be.
”I wanted him briefed as the Government gets down to the most serious stage of setting departmental expenditure limits,” said Mr Field.
 ”As the Review will be written advocating action, we are considering whether it is possible to marshal a range of intelligent interventions that radically alter what would otherwise be the current fate of poorer children.”
Mr Field has looked at studies which measured children’s abilities at age two, three and five years and then went on to look at what happened to these children in school.
He told the conference: ”The gob-smacking findings was that, as children turn up for their first day at school, they possess a wide range of abilities and that children from families on the lowest incomes were more likely to be towards the bottom end of the range of these abilities.  And there they remained when a second set of tests were taken at ten.
”Even worse was that those children from the least privileged homes who did score well in the early years - and way above some children from much richer homes – were found at aged 10 to have lost ground at school and to have been overtaken as a group by what were poorer achieving children from richer homes.”
He said he had not fallen into the ”trap of what some neuroscientists call the ‘baby determinist’ syndrome”.
”The Review will not be arguing that the only guide to influencing the outcome of a child’s life is during the crucial first three years when so much of the early brain network is formed,” he explained.  ”But neither will be saying the opposite; that it doesn’t matter too much what happens to children at the early stages of life because they can make up for a poor start later.  Later interventions do look much less cost-effective, and in general a programme of later interventions – that taxpayers know as schools – seems not to have that much impact on equalising those gross inequalities present as children cross the school threshold for the first time.” 
Children’s charity 4Children – which runs a number of Sure Start children’s centres – said 57% of children’s centres had received a ‘highly positive’ report from Ofsted in reaching the most vulnerable families. Nearly a third (32%) were said to be ‘adequate’, but 11% received a negative feedback.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said Sure Start should concentrate more on the poorest families, rather than the middle classes.
But Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, has warned that such a move would hit vulnerable families living in poverty but not in official areas of deprivation.
Following Mr Field’s speech, she said: ”It is fantastic that Frank Field is turning out to be a powerful champion of Sure Start children’s centres, which have a very positive effect on the early years and life chances for children.  He is right to recognise the importance of the early years, but there must also be support for children of all ages.”

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