NY's Naomi gets in early

19th March 2004 at 00:00
The director of Sure Start tells Philippa White how her time as a nursery assistant helpedin her latest role

Naomi Eisenstadt, the director of Sure Start and the woman in charge of the Government's child care strategy, started her working life as an assistant in a nursery in Edinburgh.

"I spent 20 years in the voluntary sector arguing with government about what I wanted to do," she said. "Now I have this amazing chance to do it."

Five years ago Tony Blair pledged to abolish child poverty within a generation and Sure Start is a key part of its campaign.

Although colleagues say her American style can seem a little brash - and she admits to being opinionated and talking too much - Jthey agree she is genuine in her determination to provide better services for children.

Ms Eisenstadt, 54, grew up in New York where her father, aJewish refugee from Austria, ran a knitting shop. She was the youngest of four children, politically active, and hard-working: "At high school I was nerdy - the clever girl who never had a date."

She was made head of Sure Start when it launched in 1999 to provide integrated health, education, social and voluntary services for poor families.

Since the first three years of a child's life have a big influence on their future achievement, the aim was to give targeted support early on. While no comprehensive evaluation has yet been published, experts say Sure Start has a "warm glow" about it for both parents and government ministers. They attribute this to its basis in common sense, its generous funding, and Ms Eisenstadt's efforts to keep it on the Government's agenda.

Last month's Audit Commission report on the National Childcare Strategy warned that overall one childcare place closed for every two that opened.

But it praised the creation of 100,000 new places for pre-school children since 1998. Ms Eisenstadt accepts the need for sustainability and has set up business support courses for new providers.

The notion that children count as consumers appeals to Ms Eisenstadt: "In a nursery the onus is on adults to be interesting because the child can walk away and do something else. The feedback is instant."

Her first job, after moving to the UK in 1974, was disappointing. She worked in an Edinburgh nursery where staff were dismissive of the parents, and children were over-regulated for meals and using the toilet, and play lacked any educational input. "There was no joy or interest in children's learning," she said.

Two years later, the family moved to Milton Keynes - where she still lives - and she was asked by the city's development corporation to set up a children's centre on a low-income housing estate, which she ran for seven years.

"I learned how difficult it is to be poor, but how amazing people are when you give them responsibilities," she says. "People can get over a tough time quicker if you ask them to contribute."

She came out of direct nursery work after having her own son, now 22, and went on to work for various children's services in the public and voluntary sector before joining Sure Start.

Her first love, however, remains. "I still have a soft spot for kids between two and five," she said. "Small children are just lovely."

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