The Best Start In Life

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As Salford City Council announces the possible closure of up to eight of its Sure Start centres, Joshua Tindall looks at the repercussions this may have on parents throughout the city and beyond.

 

Empty crisp packets skirt around the playground, the paint marks making up a netball court fade in and out of obscurity on the tarmac. On the outskirts is an army-like green fence, and just beyond that a sign, chipped but standing proudly, welcoming parents and children to the Fiddlers Lane Primary School in Irlam. But just underneath that sign, another is situated. Pink, vibrant and attention-grabbing, complete with the slogan ‘Giving children the best start in life.’
This is a Salford City Council sign, and it now seems ironic, senseless and almost laughable, seeing as that very same council just announced the closure of eight of its Sure Start centres.

Except the situation isn’t funny in the slightest to the thousands of parents who now face a huge dilemma – where will my child go to learn, play, and interact with others? With no replacement schemes in sight for many of the centres, the question is an important one.

Sure Start, a modern and confident scheme, was set up by the Labour government’s then-Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in 1998 to help areas just like Salford; widely deprived, under-funded, and lacking in learning centres for young children. Its focus isn’t just education, but also health and family support, giving many parents a helping hand. The percentage of lone parents in Salford, for example, grew from 5.9% in 1991 to 8.6% in 2001, and at the time Sure Start was the trendy new ‘bridge’ in the gap, there to support the growing number of lone parents in the city’s boroughs.

With a budget of £540 million pounds, it was set to cement early-years child learning for years to come. But here we are, just 16 years later, facing the closure of eight locally, but hundreds within the North West, like in neighbouring Bolton and Liverpool.

But almost instantaneously, an uprising began, and like David and Goliath (how apt the former name is), many parents are standing tall and defending what they feel is a necessity to the local community.

Irlam, in the south of Salford, is a proud and humble borough. Many refer to it as ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘isolated’. It strikes any visitor as close knit, like rural old-fashioned villages you’d find scoured across North Yorkshire. It’s almost unbelievable that Salford and roaring Manchester are less than thirty minutes away by bus. It is here where the heart of the protest lies, where parents are making a point, and making it heard.

Their Sure Start centre is based within Fiddlers Lane Primary School. This in itself means that the community has already been stretched – some Sure Start centres around the country are in their own standalone buildings, instead of shared like this one. The building transports you back to your own school days, or certainly mine as the building looks so similar. It’s not flash, modern or exciting. It looks weathered and cold. Yet there is an enormous feeling of community-spirit from even looking at the building. It looks content in its setting.
The hustle and bustle of the lane is noticeable especially at this time of the morning. A small row of shops sits just opposite from the school, and children run out holding prized bars of chocolate and sweets. As children and parents cross, baby strollers are easy to spot, and so too is the line of mothers walking and chatting together– it is clear that the sense of community is the reason why Sure Start is such a success here, and it’s understandable why so many want the Sure Start centre to remain.

Just over two years ago in nearby Manchester, the story was painfully similar. When all 39 of their Sure Start centres were threatened with closure in 2011, parents were left in anger just as those throughout Salford are now. A year later, Manchester City Council caved into pressure after a three-month long consultation, the biggest ever for the children services department. However, the council has since still tried to sell off the centres to private investors, as they are desperate to cut millions from their budget. Over fifteen centres in the city are now run by private companies, instead of the council. But as always, there are worries over the privatisation of such centres which were previously government-backed.

The mothers at Fiddlers Lane Primary School are stood in a group, some slowly rocking pushchairs, some grappling with small toddlers who are intent on pulling their parents hair. From the distance, they are talking about the simplest of things, but moving closer it is clear that they are in fact drawing up yet another plan of action. The planning of their protests is not an easy job, and each day is an opportunity to speak to newspapers, television news, and radio stations. Their armour may be jeans and a cosy jumper, but their goal is planned and ready to go.

Sue Campayne is just one of the mothers who have worked tirelessly since the closures were announced at the end of March. She has been instrumental in the campaign, helping to raise awareness of the potential closure on social media like Facebook. The ‘Fight the Closure of our Sure Start Centres – Irlam and Cadishead’ page has received over 1,000 members since being created just over two weeks ago, and many organisers have been blown away by the sheer success of the protest on the internet alone.

“I am so surprised about the success of our campaign, because I think the community has a lot on its plate at the moment, like anybody else.

“But I think it just shows how much the families in this area need and want this service. They value it and everybody is thinking ‘enough is enough’ now. The cuts are biting too hard and they’re affecting everybody. It’s just too much.”

Sue was quick to elaborate on her views on the cuts and was insistent on making it clear who she felt was to blame for the potential threats to Sure Start centres.

“In my view, I would hold the government and the Prime Minister to account for it because having looked at the way in which other councils have been managing their services, our services run very efficiently.”

Clearly frustrated at this point, Sue began to fold her arms before continuing:

“Our centres operate out of small amounts of space within existing schools, they can’t possibly be costing a lot to run and yet they’re providing a huge amount of service to the area. If the cuts from the government to the council are biting that hard, then I think they’re too much.”

Salford City Council says that it needs to make around £1million pounds worth of cuts across its services. But many parents, including Tanya Swindon, are upset that no replacement scheme has been announced if Sure Start were to close.

“No, they have not said anything. There will be four community hubs, (merged Sure Start centres) but our nearest hub from Irlam will be in Winton, which is, if you don’t drive, two bus journeys. That is £4 every day. But we have older children, and by the time we dropped them off at school we would not get to Winton for the early-years sessions, because many of them start at 9:30am. So basically, we’re without anything. We only have a leisure centre, but again that is plagued by costs.”

On the face of it, the closure of eight Sure Start centres and the opening of four as community hubs doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but logistical and transport problems seem to ruin the fair-sounding deal. The hectic nature of a parent’s morning would surely be even worse if this was their only option.
There is also an issue of cost. Can all families, some deprived and facing benefit cuts as it is, be expected to pay up to £4 a day in bus tickets just to let their child learn and interact? For many, it is an issue which the council has failed to do their homework on.

Another aspect to the council’s plea-bargaining is an ‘outreach’ service, staff visiting homes to check on young children and offer advice to parents. But a similar service from the NHS already exists and not all Sure Start families would be eligible for the service.

Assistant Mayor for Children’s Services, Councillor John Merry, gave a quote explaining the council’s decision:

“We (The Council) are trying to save £1million pounds from the children’s centres budget as part of the £26million cuts forced on us by the government this year.

“We are trying to protect as many staff jobs as possible, so that services to families can continue, particularly in their own homes.

It is a straightforward and very difficult choice between cutting staff and cutting buildings.”

The parents in Irlam stand and talk to others, mentioning the Facebook page, the imminent arrival of printed posters and banners, and it can’t help but be noticed that these women are now local celebrities, if not heroes. No, there are no flashing lights of paparazzi, or shouts or jeers for them to pose and smile, but these women are being respected day-after-day because of their commitment to their community.

The respect for these parents comes from the fact that each and every family is dealing with their own affairs – and it’s not until you speak to them that you begin to understand just how crucial Sure Star is to them.
Sue Campayne, who fiercely and eloquently makes her point about who she thinks is to blame for the potential closures, soothes when describing how Sure Start helps her family on a daily basis. Her demeanour remains defiant, yet there is a noticeable sense of admiration when she speaks of the centre. Her voice characterises itself as somebody who is pleading, like many of the other parents are, for the future of the centre.

“The most recent thing I’ve done with the Sure Start centre is a parenting course, which is an internationally recognised, fully researched parenting course which has helped me manage my children’s behaviour.”

Sue carried on, and made it all the more clear why she is fighting so hard:

“I have a child who’s got some quite difficult behaviour which affects school. And it’s helped me to manage those behaviours better with him. It’s been so valuable to my family. We’ve had experiences here that we wouldn’t have had anywhere else. From speech and language to healthy eating courses, every aspect of bringing up my children has been helped by this centre.”

“Is that alright” she questions after finishing the interview, bitterly certain that she hasn’t spoken as well as she could have. It’s telling, and it becomes clear that these parents aren’t used to this, and maybe aren’t even comfortable with it. Yet they strive on, and as a Granada van nearby drives away, a sense of relief waves itself upon the group. As the school bell rings like a klaxon at the start of a race, the parents begin to make a move. Listening, it’s clear that today’s diary is jam-packed with more ways to protest. The latest idea is t-shirts, ‘bold blue’ in colour, one mother exclaims, to make sure that their S.O.S campaign stands out.

They stroll out of the gate, toddlers running ahead and behind, oblivious to the determination of their parents. As they walk, the word ‘hope’ echoes around them. They know they may not succeed, but they’ll fight for as long as they are able. The power of people truly is apparent with these parents, and we can only admire them for it.

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