Day 9: Sure Start Centre In Corby, Northamptonshire

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sure Start centres have been widely acknowledged as one of the most successful pieces of public policy in the last twenty years. The Pen Green Sure Start centre in Corby is one of the country’s best, and has been at the centre of the community for nearly 30 years. Starting out as a family daycare centre, it has grown to be one of the leading research and training facilities with outstanding services for children and families.

The centre offers everything from a crèche for working parents, postnatal depression support, baby massage and family health and well-being. It also does intensive outreach work to reach parts of the community who are easily marginalised like immigrant families. For many people at whom these specific public services are targetted, the council is seen with deep hostility and suspicion. Previous bad experiences in care, at school, or with the police mean that in many cases – those with the greatest need for services like Sure Start end up being the ones excluded. It was amazing to hear the extent to which staff at the centre went beyond their job description to build relationships with people like this – having to accept that this process takes time.

Part of the community – not dictating to it

Working together and participation lie at the heart of the work Pen Green does. Every member of staff, for instance, has to go through a selection process that includes an interview with local parents. Now, a ‘parent’s parliament’ is being set up, which will give parents a voice in the budgeting process meaning that the users of the service will be directing how money is spent.

We met with Margy Walley, the Director of the centre, who explained that when she joined the staff in the late 80’s, parents had protested against the centre – not wanting it to become a hotspot for ‘problem cases’. “It was the best thing that could have happened”, she explains. “It taught me humility. Whenever I, or anyone else, has a smart idea and doesn’t talk it through with the people it would impact – that smart idea fails.” Now she is helping to set up similar centres across Brazil, Australia and further afield.

The future

Over the next three years, this centre is scheduled to lose 56% of it’s funding – essentially gutting it of it’s services. The local MP, a Conservative, has said that the cuts will come in ‘over my dead body’.

In the office, there are banners from the March For the Alternative day of action, a hand-made wall hanging reads ‘Deeds Not Words’, and there is a bake-sale to raise money for the centre when we visit. This community is fighting hard. In a local council meeting – current parents, and former children who’d been at the centre (now 16-25 year old young men and women) gave testimony against the cuts. There have been local protests and plenty of news coverage.

“I know I’m biased, but the kids that come through this centre turn into healthy, balanced, good citizens. A nursery education is a moral education. You learn about right and wrong. You learn respect, fairness and equality. It’s much more than just play-time, it’s the grounding of a political education.”

Are local campaigns having an impact?

It’s a mixed bag. Some are forcing councils/MPs to pass on pressure to central government, others are not squeezing decision makers further than an uncomfortable Friday afternoon surgery.

Often, the communities most able to organise and resist (as any wind-farm developer will tell you) are those with access to money, media and the power to mobilise. In Oxfordshire, largely middle-class people have run a very successful campaign to save local libraries. In Kentish Town, parents have developed a business plan and found a third-sector funder for childcare services. Writing a business plan for a council needs a lot of skills – and not everyone has those.

What does this mean?

As with so many projects – this one is raising as many questions for me as it is giving answers.

1. If we accept that the cuts and welfare reforms are making existing problems worse, what is the best way for us as change-makers to challenge that?

2. Where next for people who came to the March for the Alternative? How can we mobilise across the country with strategic political impact?

3. How do we use this moment to start to rebuild community and address the long-term issues of inequality, class privilege and environmental degradation?

I’d really appreciate any thoughts, ideas or pearls of wisdom you have to share!

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