Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire, and is a former Prisons Minister.
The power of ideas to effect profound change should not be underestimated. John Maynard Keynes expressed this well in his General Theory of Employment, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else…I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas…soon or late, it is ideas not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
Almost two decades ago the gifted economist and political scientist Norman Glass found himself in the Treasury with the opportunity to design and implement a British version of the American Head Start programme. What became known here as Sure Start Children’s Centres was based on his simple but powerful idea that family life can be very hard to do well, or even well enough, and that parents who are struggling – and most of us do at some point – need somewhere to go where someone will have the answers. Not everyone has extended family or friends in the community who can give them good advice and support.
The flip-side of this is that health and other services with a statutory obligation to secure children’s welfare need somewhere to operate from and refer parents to when it’s clear that help is needed. There is a lot more to Children’s Centres than that, and their emphasis is very much on what we now call the Foundation or pre-school years, and on focusing money, nursery staff and health visitors at this crucial early stage to get the next generation ready for formal schooling. But the basic, founding premise of families having ‘somewhere to go where someone will have the answers’ is needed now more than ever.
What usually gets reported about children’s centres is their tendency to be in the firing line for local authority cuts. Typically they are expensive to run and there is still doubt that they are reaching and helping those who need them most. Yet a score or more authorities, including Conservative-controlled Hampshire, are integrating their Children’s Centres into a preventive, early intervention approach across the town, city or county in order to save the high costs of family failure. This often means siting ‘early help’ in these community settings that can be accessed by families with children of any age. Typically driven by the pressing need to reduce the number of children who need to be removed from their families this has the potential to breathe new life, purpose and, crucially, viability into these community settings.
These developments were called for almost a decade ago and constantly reiterated by the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith to provide workable ideas from frontline practice to tackle the root causes of poverty. The CSJ coined the phrase ‘family hubs’, and these became official Labour policy at the last general election. It’s a powerful idea that won’t go away. Last week a report was published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children’s Centres (chaired by family policy campaigner Fiona Bruce MP) which drew on great examples of innovative practice across the county and heralded family hubs as the future for Children’s Centres.
Glass, their initial architect, described in 2005 how Conservative politicians had become more enthusiastic about the potential of Sure Start Children’s Centres than Labour ministers responsible for them. He noted the irony that it was Conservatives who were arguing for expanding Children’s Centres and increasing the involvement of the voluntary sector. Well over £5 billion has been spent on such centres since we came into Government in 2010.
With the change in Education Secretary and Early Years Minister, now is the perfect time to provide leadership to local authorities by publishing a Conservative vision and strategy for this infrastructure. The Department for Education should be aware that there are many local officers who are genuinely fearful that changing the use of Children’s Centres from more or less exclusively for early years to wider family support will lead to them being asked to repay public money through what is sinisterly known as ‘capital clawback’. This could easily be dealt with through an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill still going through the House of Lords.
In addition, the much-anticipated life chances strategy should go beyond announcing new programmes to help boost parenting and family stability – welcome though these are – and include a family services transformation fund to ensure local authorities have financial help to restructure their current services for families and children so early help isn’t squeezed out. There is a lot to learn from local authorities that have already adopted a family hub model as the APPG report makes clear.
This does not discard the importance of the early years, contravene localism or impose a rigid model from central government, It simply puts a dedicated chunk of resource into hard-pressed local authorities to enable them to learn from others who have already transformed their support systems to catch family problems early and implement their own bespoke plan to ensure these parents will have somewhere to go where someone will have the answers. This rebooted Government that has to be smarter than ever with public money has to turbocharge the ‘gradual encroachment’ of Norman Glass’s powerful idea.