A Sure Start for Children’s Centres

Wow. I’ve just finished reading Darren McGarvey’s tour de force, ‘Poverty Safari’ and am still slightly dazed and invigorated. It is an astonishing book – one I wish I could have had the skill, talent and passion to have written.

If you haven’t heard about this book, it is an exploration of the anger felt by working-class communities, part memoir and very much part polemic. His experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family in Glasgow is crucial to its beautifully argued analysis.

Putting aside the talent issue for a minute, how could I write a book like that anyway? I’m middle-class and have got nothing significant to feel angry about, have I? My parents are still happily married (well, most of the time) after fifty-three years, I own a house, and I have always had work. I live three doors from a country pub for God’s sake! How could I write a passionate polemic about class conflict and social division?

But that is Mr McGarvey’s central point, one that is revealed bit by bit as the book progresses until its final confessional chapter. To separate ourselves into class tribes, or political enemies, or diversity pressure groups, spitting at each other and living in perpetual outrage, is counter-productive and is actually the cause of our personal stress, not the consequence.

Chapter 13 was especially pertinent for me and my reflections on it are the key reason for this blog.

In the chapter, the author discusses a common pattern that sees middle-class do-gooders drive into so-called ‘deprived’ communities and impose their trendy policies and theories, all of them dyed and rinsed through with ugly jargon (my words).

Woah, that really made me think.

Am I that middle-class liberal?

Am I another toff making a living out of poverty?

I had never thought about it before but it needed some introspection. (And following said introspection, the answer to both questions was, by the way, …no.)

But racing through Chapter 13, the image in my brain that was revealed time and time again was that of the Sure Start Children’s Centre. Both for what I thought about it a decade ago (jury out), and now for what they could offer for community development in post-Brexit Britain, and for education in general.

Our Children’s Centre was built as an annexe of the school in 2007. My natural instinct was that it would form a central plank of the vision I had for the school’s development – care, support and nurture for families as they navigated those first few years of a child’s life before starting school.

To be honest, I was bewildered by what happened next. Controlled emphatically by the local authority, we were bombarded by managerial jargon and complicated structures. I couldn’t understand how this simple initiative was being made so tortuously difficult.

‘Children Centre Co-ordinators’ and ‘Family Link Workers’ would sit at computers for hours inputting data in order to prove that they were ‘engaging’ with the local community. Engaging, delivering, target-setting, holistic wrap-around care, facilitating, you name it, the language of the market obfuscated what should have been a simple community hub. And remember, this was New Labour territory.

There were so many things happening at school-level that I let it all wash over me, but it was all so limiting. It seemed to me that our existence was as a liberal, middle-class, state-related body existing to deliver targets or return data sets in order to be eligible for the next lot of funding, whilst maintaining an illusion of social change and, that awful phrase, social mobility.

Local people are not stupid; they quickly cottoned on to the fact that this was the state trying to interfere and change behaviours. They were being ‘done to’. At its worst iteration, some centres were little more than a babysitting service. There was too little buy-in from local people, not at all their fault I hasten to add.

Now the good news. Our centre has stayed open thanks to the priorities of Liverpool City Council – good on them. Our core staff have stayed the distance, have formed trusting relationships with families, know their locality really well, and their work has done a lot of good for our community.

And now? Well, accidentally, because of austerity and the shrinking of the city council’s budget, there simply aren’t the co-ordinators and strategy link workers to police all these multi-layered targets and data. By the back door, such state institutions have been somewhat set free (those that are still open).

And this creates an opportunity. Because it is surely schools, or what I would define as ‘schools fit for the 21st century’, that can take on these community centres and build trust and confidence within a local community – working alongside them, not doing it to them.

Children’s Centres can play such a valuable role as a community hub for a network of local schools, working together alongside key community partners, charities and businesses. Their work allows local people to develop that confidence, well away from the stressful confrontation that is all too common now. Schools can still aspire to academic excellence, but in a symbiotic deal with their community commitment, not instead of it.

I also believe that schools in so-called ‘deprived’ areas should be incentivised to run these centres, both financially and through the value that is recognised by educational regulators, so that they can further develop bespoke learning for the wider community, in partnership with families at all neighbouring schools. There are some great schools doing this already, but I’m not sure they get the true credit for what they are doing.

Sure be a good start if they did.

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