Targets, targets, targets!

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The Independent Online
Later this month, the Government hopes to announce more details of the 25 "early excellence centres" promised in its manifesto.

Dudley, in the heart of the Black Country, is one place it might look for ideas. The Netherton Park family centre opened three years ago, offering nursery education, activities for babies and toddlers and their parents and carers, some all-day and after-school care and a holiday play scheme, and social services family support.

Netherton Park was originally a traditional nursery school which, in 1983, the local authority threatened to close. Parents were up in arms, and their campaign saved the school.

The head teacher, Chris Catanach, had dynamic ideas about "doing early education properly". That meant bringing in parents. "However good our practice is, it will all wash out at the end of the day if we don't get the parents in," she says.

It also meant forging close links with local health and social workers who were all working with the same families. That was a lot easier at middle-management level than with the hard-pressed workers on the ground.

It took a long time to put together the deal that finally built the new family centre. It has been funded by Dudley education and social services and the charity NCH Action for Children - a good example of partnership between voluntary and statutory agencies.

The core of the new building is an open-plan nursery school, where some children can stay all day. Small rooms lead off the nursery for intensive support work with families, and for a "nurture group" of children with special needs.

Children "in need" who come to the centre with their parents for specialist work often go out to play with the nursery children - and the parents of "mainstream" children sometimes refer themselves for family support.

There is a large and sociable community room with various groups and drop-ins for parents and others looking after babies and toddlers, offering educational opportunities for the children and support and social networks for the adults. A comfortable smaller room is used for adult groups and classes.

Social workers and health visitors fit unobtrusively into the family support work and the community room. The family support workers also go out into people's homes.

According to a social worker: "Netherton's great strength is that families can come in through any doorway for any reason, and find support with no stigma attached."

Parents tell you how much the centre has done for them. "I was pulling my hair out. I couldn't look at nobody, speak to nobody, go nowhere," says one mother, who had gained so much confidence at the centre that she got a part-time job and enrolled on a college access course.

Netherton Park is now a hub for a local network of professionals serving families with young children. The local community college runs some classes for parents at the centre.

Its staff say that the link has brought them new clients they would otherwise never have reached. While parents and child-minders attend classes, the children are looked after at the centre by staff they know well.

Today, as well as the 60 children in the nursery school, more than l00 families make use of other Netherton services every week.

Netherton Park was one of 10 early years centres providing education, health and social services for young children and their parents that I visited when preparing a report for the National Children's Bureau, which is published this week.

The centres were all different: they had succeeded by responding to the particular needs of their neighbourhoods. None had found it easy to bring services together, and to train staff on the job to meet the real, everyday needs of parents and their young children.

But the evidence was that the successful centres were very effective in preventing expensive social and educational problems, and the damage and unhappiness those problems cause for children, their families and their communities.

There is no single blueprint for an "early excellence" centre. But there is plenty of good, and hopeful, experience that the new Labour centres can draw onn

Virginia Makins

`Not Just 4 Nursery: Multi-Agency Early Years Centres In Action' by Virginia Makins is published by the National Children's Bureau; price pounds 14.50 (pounds 9.50 for bureau members).

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