Softly, softly to get ethnic families off to a sure start

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Outreach work is 'critical' to overcome fears and help the disadvantaged

ATTRACTING PARENTS from ethnic minority communities remains one of the biggest challenges for Labour's Sure Start children's centres. Ensuring they feel welcome takes time, money and imagination, researchers say.

The centres were launched in 1999 to give support to disadvantaged children under 4 years old and their families by providing access to early education, childcare, health and family support.

As part of a nationwide evaluation funded by what is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families, researchers found that the centres which had managed to make good links with ethnic minority communities had gathered data on who was using their services and developed outreach work.

Others had abandoned the attempt, they discovered.

Some found that black and ethnic minority parents were put off by the idea that the services were for disadvantaged families, or were generally suspicious of state assistance.

The report Sure Start and Black and Minority Ethnic Populations noted there had been particular difficulty reaching the Bangladeshi community and some centres "had simply given up trying".

"Their marginalisation could be exacerbated by racism, for example, where white parents had told Bangladeshi parents that they could not use the facilities," it said.

The researchers from Hull, Leeds and York universities concluded that creating links was "challenging, slow and costly".

The study was carried out at 12 centres across England serving areas where minority populations ranged from 2 per cent to 70 per cent.

The study found outreach work was "critical" and the report recommended targeting health support and social events at particular ethnic groups, employing staff from local minorites, and providing translation services.

Portsmouth Sure Start, working with the council's ethnic minority achievement service, won a national award in 2004 for its work with Bangladeshi women.

Marshada Chowdhury and Ranu Islam, community cohesion officers, set up weekly drop-in groups for Bangladeshi women. Mrs Chowdhury said: "It is about being sensitive to the fact that Bangladeshi women have many roles and responsibilities around the home.

"We started with a coffee morning and said women could bring their families as well.

"We also did home visits and spoke to the families, explaining that if their daughter-in-law learnt English it would benefit the children and the whole family.

"At the drop-in sessions we introduced women to local services, such as the local library. Then when the women were confident enough, they could use those services themselves."

In 2005, findings from the Government concluded some of the most alienated families did worse in Sure Start areas than those in similar communities elsewhere, although there were some small benefits for children from relatively less disadvantaged families.

The 524 original local programmes are now being rebranded as Sure Start Children's Centres. The goal is for 3,500 children's centres to be open by 2010.

* www.dfes.gov.ukresearch

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