In 1999, lack of facilities for children under four and their families, poor childcare provision and the sense of isolation felt by parents with young children living in South Fenland, Cambridgeshire, persuaded Sure Start to approve our programme.
We knew Sure Start South Fenland needed a fresh approach. Families in our catchment area live in isolated villages up to 12 miles from our base in Chatteris, separated by miles of man-made water channels that drain the stark, flat landscape of the Fens. Public transport is non-existent between villages and infrequent to the local market towns. Whereas most early Sure Start programmes are urban, offering drop-in facilities within pram-pushing distance, ours was the first rural project. We had to find ways of reaching our families, so we set up a bi-monthly newsletter and events diary which we send out to every household with a child under four. The downside is that costs are raised in a rural area, as workers' travelling time is longer.
We take a holistic approach, with the child and the family at the centre of everything we do. Our focus is on prevention and early intervention. So we offer home visits and group activities to families facing difficulties and we work with The Ormiston Children's and Families' Trust, offering weekly get-togethers for young parents and parents-to-be. This gives families a chance of one-to-one support and to raise issues that matter to them. Some services are targeted to individual needs, but it is important to offer universal services, which anyone can use regardless of ability to pay.
These encourage families to seek specific support without the stigma attached to being part of a "programme". One of the most successful of these projects has involved funding an early years' librarian to work with Cambridgeshire Library Service. She takes story time out to the villages and organises singing and rhyme sessions at the library. These also act as social opportunities for parents, who are encouraged to take out books or use the computers. More than 50 per cent of all under-fours are now active members of a library.
The programme is constantly evolving to meet local needs. How do we know what those needs are? Parents are offered a visit by a health worker, who will chat to them and identify any additional support they might need. They are then put in touch with the appropriate services. It's a positive approach: it isn't a risk assessment and there's no score at the end. It's the conversation that's important. This kind of listening keeps our programme on track.
Parents are a key part of our partnership board. Made up of statutory partners from health, education and social services as well as voluntary organisations and parents, the board is responsible for the direction of the programme and ensuring it meets national Sure Start objectives.
Meetings are open to the public to encourage community involvement and raise awareness of the programme.
We feel we're getting somewhere: 69 per cent of families with children under four in our catchment area have accessed Sure Start South Fenland activities or services in the past year. And we've built up a range of activities: from working with parents, parish and district councils to building outdoor play areas, improving community venues and offering "messy play" taster sessions. In particular, we've been able to kick-start projects that have gone on to have long-term benefits. For example, funding pre-school education sessions for three-year-olds which are now funded by the local authority. And we've been able to work with the National Childminding Association to increase the number and quality of registered childminders in our area, which also boosts employment. The programme really does make a difference.
Lesley Chambers is programme manager of Sure Start SouthFenland