By Janine Booth - From Solidarity 3/14, 11 October 2002
I live in a SureStart pilot area. SureStart is a government project to help children younger than four years old. But for many parents, kids and workers, it has been a frustrating experience.
I will say before I start to rant that SureStart Queensbridge and Dalson provides some good services, and we would be poorer without it. My friends and I have benefited from classes, advice, and play sessions. We have a great little Toddler Art Club on our estate.
But it was a battle with SureStart's administration to get it going, and therein lies the problem. Kids with needs, parents with ideas, workers with skills ... being blocked and tied up by a hopeless bureaucracy.
SureStart is supposed to be 'parent-led'. So we had parents' meetings. We came up with lots of ideas - a toddler gym, playgroups on estates, a creche at the local leisure centre and the new library - but they went nowhere, because there is no democratic, decision-making path for them to follow. Gradually, parents stopped going because they were wasting their time, and time is not something you have much of when you have young children.
Managers spoke a strange dialect: the new language of administration: Feed it into the system, take it on board, targets, mission statement, client groups, providers, feedback. Results? No, not results: too concrete.
There is much hair-tearing about how to get to 'hard-to-reach' parents. Several of us gave a straightforward answer: you have to go beyond your showpiece, purpose-built under-fives centre (recently visited by Tony Blair) and into the estates and communities. But initiatives to do this have been slow to appear.
SureStart is a 'partnership', meaning it is multi-agency, and each agency thinks that it is another agency's job to get things done. It has something to do with the Council, but we are not sure what. I think the relationship is that the Council shows off about it, but takes no responsibility for it. I have never seen a Councillor at a SureStart meeting.
Extraordinarily enough, a couple of years ago, SureStart Queensbridge and Dalston managed to seriously underspend its budget. Only half of its million-pound government fund was spent. Oh, parents could have spent that in no time! But this suggests that the problem with SureStart is not so much lack of money, but bureaucratisation - lacking the democracy, the accountability and the political will to do what is needed.
In my view, many areas of our public services are suffering not just from underfunding and privatisation, but also from a similar bureaucratisation. The public authority creates a set-up which is set apart from the elected body, further from any chance the community has to control it, and which generates its own paper trails and management systems which eat further into the limited resources it has. Examples: 'arms-length' housing providers; the Learning Trust, now running Hackney's education.
Perhaps SureStart's funding level sets it low horizons to start with. And its existence in 'pilot area' only restricts its usefulness further. Sometimes, the borders are patrolled ruthlessly - I have seen kids refused entry to toddler groups because they live a few yards out of the area. With SureStart, you really can live on the wrong side of the tracks. Is this because only certain parts of Hackney - or most other places - have children who need services and parents who need support? Of course not.
Here in Hackney at least, SureStart has been unable to protect kids from the collapse of children's services all around them. Nurseries, one o'clock clubs and playschemes are all closing because of vicious Council cuts, and SureStart is not even the beginning of a fraction of a band-aid on a severed artery. Maybe that is not its purpose. But if we want to know what is going to provide radical improvement in the life chances of our kids, or relieve parents in working-class communities of some of the hard-to-bear pressures we face, then SureStart is not the answer.