#163;540m to give parent centres a sure start

The Government is planning to set up 250 centres for parents with young children in areas where families are struggling with poverty and deprivation.

The intention is to spend Pounds 540 million over three years (Pounds 450m in England) on providing additional professional help for families with children up to the age of three.

Assistance is to be offered when children are only weeks old.

The Sure Start programme launched this week by David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary, and Tessa Jowell, health minister, is part of the Government's strategy to draw together ministries to tackle problems which have a number of causes.

The plans draw on ideas from the United States about targeting children under five, but also on schemes that already exist here for early identification of children and families that would benefit from extra help.

Margaret Hodge, the junior education and employment minister who has been involved in developing the strategy, said there could be a Sure Start centre in a tenants' hall, a doctor's surgery or health centre.

"They will all be within pram-pushing distance and the services provided will be universal in the area covered by the project. All parents of new babies will be visited and made aware of what professional services or other services are available," she said.

There is likely to be training for the outreach workers appointed to the centres, though some may already have suitable qualifications.

"Often, people are looking for the sort of help and advice that would have been available from extended families and supportive communities," said Mr Blunkett.

The Sure Start proposals have been developed by an inter-departmental group and are intended to be a demonstration of the way the Government wants to tackle the underlying causes of underachievement.

Areas will not be required to bid for funding. The projects will be located across the country on the basis of poverty and other indices. The precise mechanism has yet to be announced.

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