A Sure Start in life is essential


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The Independent Online

The first few weeks of new motherhood can be an isolating experience. Mother and baby get a knock on the door from the health visitor very early on, but these visits tail off. There are coffee mornings and breastfeeding clubs but, a lot of the time, it's just you and your baby, who seems to know more than you do about this messy business of parenthood, crying out of frustration because you keep getting it wrong.

Then there are the times when you get it right, when your baby gazes admiringly into your eyes and you gaze admiringly back. This emotional attachment between mother and child during the first 1,000 days of life counts for everything, say childhood experts: it can mean the difference between a child doing well at school and not, forming stable relationships and not, being a good citizen and not. This was the driving force behind the creation of Sure Start, to ensure that families who need it get practical and emotional support during those first 1,000 days.

Sure Start has helped millions of families, with a centre in every community. Yet, since 2010, budget cuts to local government and the end of ring-fenced protection for its centres have seen 500 close. And, since 2010, Labour has maintained that only a Miliband government would safeguard what Tony Blair describes as "one of New Labour's greatest achievements" and that Tessa Jowell, who helped to bring in the policy in 1998, calls a "national treasure".

It is baffling, then, that Tristram Hunt, the party's education spokesman, should apparently herald the end of Labour's devotion to Sure Start. He said last week that he believed there should still be children's centres, but financial constraints meant it was no longer possible to pledge to reopen those that had closed. He also used the line that many critics wheel out, that Sure Start is not reaching those who need it most, and that too many have focused on non-cognitive abilities – middle-class mums and their well-nourished bottoms taking up all the baby-yoga mats.

Hunt may think he is simply making a sensible economic argument for sticking to the coalition's closures, but his words sound like a symbolic break with Labour's commitment to Sure Start. What will his colleagues think? David Blunkett, who as education secretary in 1998 ensured, with Jowell, the new policy became a reality, last year said Sure Start centres were so important that "whatever the stringencies of public finances ... we should restore the original local Sure Start programmes in the most deprived parts of Britain and build on what worked best".

Today Blunkett is diplomatic, his office saying: "David stands by what he said in November 2013. He believes that understandably Tristram cannot commit to restoring all the Sure Start programmes but David was careful to say what he said, namely in the most deprived areas and to build on what works best."

When I ask Jowell, she backs Hunt over a targeted, economic case, but insists this doesn't mean Labour has disowned Sure Start. She says: "Sure Start is just as integral to Labour's achievements as the NHS. But just as the health service has to adapt and change in the light of new evidence and treatments, so must Sure Start respond to new evidence." If this is the case, then Hunt needs to be a cheerleader for Sure Start, not take cheap shots at baby yoga.

Because it is a fallacy that Sure Start centres are clogged up with middle-class mums. As a middle-class mother who, indeed, did baby yoga with her nine-week-old daughter at her local Sure Start centre in Peckham, I can testify that it is true that, in parts of London, this is the general picture. Yet these are the very places where journalists and politicians live. Outside the capital, according to Jowell in a speech to the Mile End Group last month, Sure Start is pretty well targeted at the families who need the support the most.

In any case, why are we so obsessed by middle-class use of public services? As long as it is not to the detriment of deprived families, bringing more affluent and poorer families together is essential for a healthy social mix. It would be dangerous to start talking about having state schools in inner-city areas only for the poor, or hospitals in certain neighbourhoods just for deprived patients. As Richard Titmuss said, services for the poor are poor services.

And when I went to baby yoga in Peckham, there was a wide social mix of mothers on the mats, soothing their infants with gentle massage. Are we saying, as critics seem to be, that poorer mothers do not do baby yoga? That would be incorrect, and dangerous, too. The criticism about "non-cognitive" ability is also misguided, given that a session in baby yoga – a chance for a mother to give her undiluted attention to her child and develop that essential bond – is often followed up with a talk about reading stories to infants. In the week when Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector, called for nurseries to be more stringent with teaching, it is important to remember that these early years should be about play and emotional attachment, as well as the occasional offer of free fruit. Eat, play, love, you might call it.

Naughty boys!

While Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg were tearing strips off each other in the EU debate on Wednesday, David Cameron and Ed Miliband tried to get in on the combat action. At PMQs, Miliband called the Prime Minister a "dunce", while the PM returned the insult by calling the Labour leader and Ed Balls "muppets". Many were aghast at this language, not least a stream of children who flooded the BBC's Newsround website with comments such as this from Ella in Manchester: "They are meant to be role models but how can they be if they are name calling? They should both apologise." Or this, from Mahad in Sheffield: "If I called someone a muppet at school I would get a detention!" Indeed so.

Nick who?

This week, Jeremy Browne, the only minister ever to be sacked for being too loyal to the Government, publishes his book Race Plan: An authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for 'The Global Race'. This will be seen by some as a manifesto for a 21st-century Blairism, and possibly a launch pad for the Lib Dem leadership next year. As it is embargoed, I cannot tell you what it says, only that, according to the index, there is one mention of Nick Clegg in the entire book, while there are six references to Tony Blair.