Start-right cash to combat exclusion

31st July 1998 at 01:00
Nadene Ghouri on how the Pounds 540 million for disadvantaged toddlers is viewed on the wrong side of the Westminster tracks.

THE Government this week unveiled a Pounds 540 million programme to tackle social exclusion from the start of a child's schooldays.

Sure Start - which aims to ensure disadvantaged children arrive at school "happy, healthy, with social skills and ready to learn" - is targeted at Britain's poorest 125,000 under-threes.

Measures range from parenting classes to advice on breast-feeding but it is unclear how the scheme - described by a Government official as a "skeleton waiting for flesh" - will work.

Sure Start, which echoes the Conservatives' back-to-basics policy and US President Bill Clinton's Head Start programme, emphasises family life and good parenting. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett said it was for children who would otherwise be "handed disadvantage at birth".

The cash will be allocated to existing pre-schools, nurseries and family learning centres in Britain's most deprived areas. Of these, 250 will become Sure Start centres offering childcare, health care and learning opportunities. Families will be visited within three months of birth by a "multi-disciplinary" worker who will urge them to attend parenting classes and give advice on teaching and playing with their child.

Initially Sure Start will target under-threes from the poorest 5 per cent of families, despite health minister Tessa Jowell's promises that the scheme wouldn't come with an "only for the poor" stigma.

Liz Sewell of Gingerbread, the single parents' charity, said there was a danger that the programme would be "bound up in moralistic judgments about whether mothers should work or parents should marry".

Margaret Lochrie, of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents hundreds of pre-schools which are likely to become the main beneficiaries of Sure Start money, said the Government must "listen to, not patronise" deprived families.

She added: "What won't work is a flotilla of health visitors and social workers swooping on to housing estates telling people how to live their lives."

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