Monday, November 15, 2010

Sure-Start and why the age of austerity has a long way to go

For those of you with memories that reach all the way back to the heady days of the election campaign you might remember the scaremongering surrounding Sure-Start and alleged Tory plans to cut its funding.

The real policy position during the election was that Sure Start funding was to be refocused on its original purpose of helping those that were the most needy with their children and parenting. The criticisms of the programme at the time were that Sure-Start centres had become a home for Middle Class mums who were busy getting baby massage and yoga classes for free whilst forcing out those that needed free support the most. Conservative Plans were to move funding from programmes like these to fund an extra 2,000 Health Visitors.

During the campaign I remember Labour’s view of Sure-Start was to use it as a wedge issue for Middle Class voters, a sure sign that they knew what it had become. For me this was highlighted when Harriett Harman and another Labour front bencher visited a Sure-Start Centre leading to a quote from them (I think it was on twitter) to the effect of “I can’t believe that the Tories want to cut our baby massage funding”. Cue much coughing and spluttering from the right on why the hell are we funding that in the first place.

Now though we have a new coalition government that is doing its best to implement that manifesto and of course we’ve had the CSR which has shown just how bad the economic situation is, so everything’s changed, yes?

Well actually no. This weekend we met up with some of our fellow new parent friends, one of which attends a post-natal class at a Sure-Start centre. So far they’ve done sessions on learning through play, music and song, baby massage (of course) and a few other things. So baby massage funding remains. Fair enough you might say it is supposed to have some real world benefits, but unfortunately it gets worse. In a rather embarrassed way she then told us how the final session of the course had been left free and that the health visitor running it was delighted that she’d managed to get some funding for someone to come in and give the mothers either a pedicure or an eyebrow thread. Where’s the funding from, yes that’s right Sure Start.

Now I found this absolutely shocking. As a country we’re borrowing £500m a day, the interest payments alone are costing us £126m and money is being spent on things like this. I doubt this is an isolated case and it tells us a lot about the challenges we have in making the budget cuts we need to make to turn the economic situation around.

The biggest challenge for implementing the CSR isn’t in coming up with the plan, anyone can move numbers around on a spreadsheet. I used to be a management consultant, that and making PowerPoint presentations was much of my daily work, but getting people to actually implement them is always the challenge.

Look at this instance as just a small example. Firstly the health visitor running it had to think, yes this is a reasonable use of Sure-Start funding, then someone further up the chain presumably had to sign it off and also agree that it was a good use of tax-payer funds. At some point someone even higher up will review the budget and expenditure reports and see an invoice for beauty treatments next to Sure-Start and will presumably not question it. If there was any chance they would then it would never have been OK’d from below or requested in the first place. And don’t forget the mothers, who will also be complaining that VAT is going up and everything costs more, will also have to accept these tax-payer funded beauty treatments without question.

So are we in the age of austerity yet? Economically we are, we have to be, but psychologically we’ve got a long long way to go, not just within the public sector but also within the public itself.

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1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post.
    I will be sure to forward this onto my mother to read as she works for Sure Start and has given me a hard time since I helped with the Conservative election in Berwick Upon Tweed.