Sure Start and bright future

In 2002 they did not exist. By next year, there will a children's centre to serve every community in Norfolk. With Sure Start Children's Centre Week starting on Monday, STEVE DOWNES asks whether they are making any difference to the neediest families.

In 2002 they did not exist. By next year, there will a children's centre to serve every community in Norfolk.

With Sure Start Children's Centre Week starting on Monday, STEVE DOWNES asks whether they are making any difference to the neediest families.

We all know what high schools offer.

But what about Sure Start children's centres? After all, by the end of March 2010, their numbers will be the same.

Once the third phase of the development of children's centres is completed, there will be 52: one to serve every area of Norfolk.

They were one of the government's big ideas to tackle poverty and inequality, and are here to stay.

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The first phase saw 11 centres built in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in the county. Inevitably, they were largely located in Norwich, Yarmouth and King's Lynn.

For phase two, 25 centres were set up, with the remit of ensuring that all of most deprived 30pc areas had one.

Now the final 16 centres are being built to fill in the gaps and ensure that every parent in Norfolk can access the services when their children are under the age of five.

The aim of children's centres is to improve the depth and range of services available to support parents of younger children - and to make them more accessible.

Nationally, the government has spent more than �10bn to provide 3,500 children's centres, ensuring that every area in the country has one.

Ministers are desperate for them to be a success, and are encouraging local authorities to make a song and dance about Sure Start Children's Centre Week.

In Norfolk, a great deal of time has been spent in making contact with the hardest to reach groups, particularly families living below the poverty line.

Last year, their effectiveness in doing that was called into question by a report by Norfolk County Council's cabinet scrutiny committee.

The report said the centres were being “dominated” by middle class parents, with those in the greatest need steering clear because they were suspicious of authority and of being branded bad parents.

It added that middle class mums and dads were “getting in first” for the services, which include childminding while they are working, cr�ches, nurseries, parenting sessions and social and support groups.

At the time, Ian Duckmanton, manager of Poppyland Sure Start children's centre cluster in north-east Norfolk, said the centres needed time to establish themselves.

He said: “If they go back in three years' time they will see a very different picture. A respected study concluded that it takes at least two to three years to establish a children's centre then a further two years to engage on a meaningful basis with parents.”

He added: “It has taken us that long to get to a position where we are seen by parents as normal. Before that the community had a range of views including that we were just another initiative that wouldn't last.”

There is not a great deal of in-depth assessment of the entire network of Norfolk children's centres, largely because they are still being set up.

But in July, independent research team RMRA and the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at the University of East Anglia (UEA), assessed the effectiveness and impact of the Norfolk centres run by the charity Action for Children.

The report found the centres, including those at Cromer, Mundesley, North Walsham and Stalham, were “accessible and integrated”, offering “affordable services for all parents and children”.

It also praised the “integration of health, social and education services supporting families in need”.

According to Sarah Spall, strategic lead for the development of children's centres at the council, which oversees the network, said: “The gap is being closed at the foundation stage, which is the pre-school age, between the most disadvantaged children and the average. That is a result of the range of family support. There's evidence that the children's centres are working.”

The centres are only funded until the end of March 2011, which introduces some uncertainty among staff.

But Mrs Spall said: “Going through parliament at the moment is the legislation to make Sure Start children's centres part of the statutory provision, which means they are here to stay. It puts them on a much more solid footing.

“From January 2010 they will also be subject to Ofsted inspections, just like schools. Now that we are looking towards coverage across the whole county, we can say they will provide universal services for children and families aged from 0-5.”

So what do they do?

Mrs Spall said: “We now have information on where all the children are in the county. Every child and family is visited by a health visitor. They all have a midwife. That is the point of contact.

“There's a range of universal services including baby massage and stay and play, which are available for all the families in the area. And all children's centres work with a range of professionals in the centre.

“All children's centres provide a core offer of services. But they are different on the basis of the needs of the individual communities.”

She was certain that the centres had made a difference to families across Norfolk.

“The choice of services available has improved as a result of the children's centres being developed. There's greater access to services and information is more readily available.

“I think families feel better supported. In the past you had a health visitor and a midwife. But there's now a whole range of other people who can help.

“Families are having their needs better met. There's a lot more support for people in their parenting. It's giving children a better start in life.”

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