New government, more big ideas...

31st July 1998 at 01:00
How the Pounds 540 million for disadvantaged toddlers is viewed on the wrong side of the Westminister tracks.

ROSEMARY Phillips isn't getting too excited about Sure Start - she's seen it all before. In 30 years of running Hurley House pre-school in Kennington, south London, she's witnessed plenty of government bright ideas, including the mums' army and nursery vouchers.

She began Hurley House with a single volunteer - herself. Today she employs six full-time staff, three trainees and provides low-cost childcare for 36 children, 52 weeks a year. The enterprise allows 36 parents to get into work or training.

The pre-school costs Pounds 72,000 a year to run. But she says that what it offers in less obvious terms can not be priced.

She says: "You wouldn't believe the problems we deal with here. Violent boyfriends, lending someone a couple of quid to buy food, sorting out benefits or taking a toddler off a mum's hands when she's reached the end of her tether and needs a couple of hours' breathing space. They call us their extended family."

Thirty years ago the area was predominantly white and lone parents were a minority group, but today it is a rich ethnic mix and 80 per cent of those using the centre are single-parent families. There are at least three lone dads on the waiting list.

Hurley's children chase around a concrete playground overshadowed by huge tower blocks on one side, but go largely unnoticed by MPs occupying the stately Regency terraces, just a mile from Westminster, on the other.

Hurley's staff have asked for Pounds 78,000 to upgrade facilities and provide 13 new full-time places. Ms Phillips says: "It's simple arithmetic - 13 mums and dads off benefits and the Government will get their investment back within the year."

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