Sure Start is the best start

So, ‘Just Call me Dave’ and I are sat in the pub garden. Lord knows where are kids have gotten to, but we think they are around somewhere, the bodygaurds are probably keeping an eye out. Or the landlord. Hopefully. JCMD sips from his Cosmopolitan and says to me;

“Ok, so, if you don’t breast feed your babies, I am going to take some money away from your local Sure Start centre”.

After I picked up my jaw from the wooden picnic table, I grabbed his Cosmo and threw it in his face.

Well. This may not have actually happened per se, but the facts are the same.

How dare he! I hear you cry! Who on earth does he think he is?! I hear you shout!

Well, he is the Prime Minister is who he is and he knows he can get away with implementing these things. And implementing them he has. Isn’t that infuriating?

Let me go back a few steps.

I have heard along the grapevine that as of next year, Buckinghamshire (where both Chillax Dave and I reside) will be partaking in the “Payment by Results” scheme. This sounds incredibly positive doesn’t it? What it should be called is the “Reach targets or else” scheme. Less positive, more realistic. How I interpret it is that unless the Sure Start Centres here can prove that they are meeting certain targets and goals, the budget of those Sure Start Centres will be affected. Some goals have a thread of sense behind them (encouraging parents to read more at home with their children for example) but some are just plain shocking and completely invasive to those families who do attend these centres.

The one that gets my goat the most is this – the centres have to prove they have a certain number of mothers breastfeeding their children. If they don’t have a certain proportion of members breastfeeding their children, then bye bye money.

*steam comes out of ears*

I can only blog on a personal level about this, and I remind you I am not a Sure Start worker, or a politican, but I am a mother who attends a Sure Start Centre up to 3 times a week. So, a few things;

1) Let’s start with the positives. Yes, providing breastfeeding support and advice and guidance is a brilliant idea. More power to this idea and lets promote this. Let’s make sure mothers and fathers are aware of this available support and have lashings of access to it. Should they wish to. And therein lies the point. Should. They. Wish. To.

2) How on earth would they begin to monitor, honestly and realistically, how many mothers breastfeed? What if someone breastfeeds but also tops up with formula? Are they considered not “true breastfeeders”? What if people lie. Because people do do that, you know, because of lots of reasons. One of them being because they fear what will happen if they tell the truth…oh, wait, yes, if you tell the truth and say you formula feed then you (via your Sure Start Centre) WILL be punished. So yes, give in to the fear and fib.

3) It would involve actually asking mothers if they breastfeed. So, what happens when someone says “no, I don’t breastfeed”. Does the Sure Start Centre shut the door in their face and say

“Sorry! We need a breast feeding mother and you, my dear, simply are not that person. I have a quota to reach. BYE!”

4) People don’t breast feed for a huge variety of reasons. Personal reasons, health reasons, reasons which are their own. I do not breastfeed. I breastFED my boys, but for a matter of weeks only. For reasons I do not wish to share with David Cameron, nor have validated by a politician. I see it as none of his business and irrelevant to my attendance at a Sure Start Centre.

5) Sure Start Centres have children attending up to the age of 5. So what if a Sure Start Centre is in an area where a lot of people only access the centre when their baby is one year plus? The majority of mothers don’t breastfeed after that time. Should THAT centre be penalised?

6) Statistics on breastfeeding will inevitably become fictional and not truly representative or accurate. People will lie about their breastfeeding experience so as to support their centre and ensure their centre still receives their deserved budget. I would. Figures would become ficticious. Ergo made-up. These stats will then consequently sqew-if the future breastfeeding stats that get bandied about in the press.

Because of stupid targets and ideas such as this, the rest of the resources at Sure Start centres will be affected and ultimately suffer. There may be staff cuts. Sessions may be stopped. And why? I don’t know what I would do without my Sure Start Centre. Those people threw me a life raft when I was drowning in a big black pit of Post Natal Depression and continue to support me to this day. They never miss a trick, those people, and are on alert constantly to make sure the members of their community (and that’s what those places are – communities) are doing OK. When the boys were riddled with the pox we didn’t get to go up to our regular centre for a good month, and do you know what the staff did? They worried about us. They phoned me up. Not as busy bodies, not as do-gooders, but as friends and mums themselves who had in the back of their heads

“Have you seen Hannah recently? No me neither. I’ll give her a ring”

They did not let me slip from their radar. They wanted to make sure everything was ok. Over and above their job that, methinks.

I tweeted about this and got a reply from a friend @MiddleScribbler who summed it up. She said it was like this –

Cameron: “let’s give them unachievable targets so when they fail we can take their money”

Clegg: *makes like a nodding dog*

Doesn’t that just sum it up? They want Sure Start centres to fail.  Shame on you, David Cameron. Shame on you.

Whilst I fully appreciate that Sure Start is part of a long term scheme to promote parenting skills and help those struggling, to enforce targets such as this could actually work against that, surely? What people like JCMD and Noddy (Clegg) don’t realise is the staff at these centres are doing an incredibly difficult job, and doing it with amazing talent, respect for their members and grace. People of varying backrounds go to these centres and it is the job of the staff to meet every single variety of needs. An incredibly difficult job to do, I should imagine.

Provide advice, guidance and support yes! But take away resources if a certain target isn’t hit? Ridiculous.

Your thoughts? I would be very interested to hear them. And all views expressed will get approved for comment.

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23 Responses to Sure Start is the best start

  1. Carly says:

    I hadn’t actually heard about this Hannah, totally ridiculous. What i have heard for a while is that our sure start centre is at risk as the ‘right type of people’ don’t use it. Now I thought the purpose of these fantastic centres was to reach out to ALL parents and more importantly, ALL children. But no, apparently if you have a partner, or aren’t under 20 or earn over a certain amount then you don’t need support, you can’t be struggling with motherhood or be at risk of PND. Absolute shite. And yes, I too would lie to keep my centre open, but why the hell should we have to! I’m perfectly happy to have bottle fed my boys and to lie would almost imply that I have failed somehow ( not that THAT debate isn’t thrown in our faces enough). Hate this fucking government

    • Hannah says:

      Thanks for the comment. I know – totally ridiculous. I too thought the whole point was for these centres to reach out to ALL people.

  2. I’ve attended a local Sure Start Centre and have found all they do supportive and worth funding more, not less, based on something that is a personal choice.
    Honestly, I thought I’d seen and heard all the crazy political ideas but every now and then this government just shows there’s one more I haven’t seen.
    A brilliant post.

  3. Brilliant post. I am a Children and Family Worker for a church which has links to the local Sure Start centre. I did a placement there while I did my degree and they were the focus of my social policy essay. When I heard about the Payment by Results thing I was fuming, and just like you I immediately thought of the parents who would miss out because they didn’t fulfil the criteria needed for the centre to stay afloat. It forces centres to make difficult decisions and makes parents feel that they are nothing more than a statistic. One thing I love about Sure Start is that they are open to EVERYONE despite the common opinion that they are only there to help families in deprived areas. Nonsense. Post natal depression can hit anyone regardless of their financial situation. Ditto breastfeeding problems, behaviour issues, special needs, fussy eating….. in short NORMAL aspects of raising a child that Sure Start offers support for. I worry that families who don’t fall under a category of being “in need” according to Govt criteria will slip under the radar and suffer.

    The voluntary sector (e.g. churches) are expected pick up some of the slack with parenting courses, toddler groups, giving advice etc but we can’t do the amazing job that Sure Start do, because we don’t have any money either. So much for Big Society.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue.

    • Hannah says:

      Thank you so much for this comment and for taking the time to read this post. I completely agree – what is “normal” anyway? Can I take the time to say thanks for all the hard work it sounds like you do in your job – people such as you are who people like me rely on. Thank you.

  4. steve says:

    W-e-e-e-l-l-l, I would love to say that I’m surprised. But I’m not.
    Can I ask what might be considered an impertinent question? What the heck, I’m going to ask anyway.
    Do you consider yourself middle-class?
    I know, it’s an intensely personal question, but definitely relevant. Let me help you out: working class – probably work shift work, probably manual work, get paid weekly. Middle class: probably more brain work and writing than working class and get paid monthly.
    [I’m having problems with this myself because I kind of straddle the line and yes, I know my definition was arbitrary – but that was intentional.]
    Cut to the chase: because, if you are middle class you have been selected by this Government (hard to grace them with a capital letter, but I was dragged up properly) for EXTINCTION.
    Let’s re-wind a little way: to the Ice Age. If you were a Mammoth or Sabre-Toothed tiger and you were scheduled for extinction I feel sure that a representative from some Government body would have come up – with wax-tablet and stylus (I know, not invented until Roman times) and told you what your options were. I like to think they would have run along the lines of “adapt or go extinct”.
    Taking a leaf from the mammals of the later Ice Age, it is clear that remaining as you are is NOT an option.
    Thus, today with the Middle Classes. The remaining and as yet unanswered question is; “How to adapt?”
    Clearly becoming rich and famous and therefore defacto Upper Class is out of the question unless you win that travesty of a “talent” show – which shall be nameless – or you win scratch card Friday ;). There is now, thanks to the tax regime which is currently in place, no legitimate way of increasing wealth to the point where you can escape Middle Classdom.
    So, in a reversal of the disco song, “The Only Way is Up (baby)”, apparently the Only way has to be DOWN.
    So, here are a few friendly tips on what to do:

    (2) take to only wearing velour tracksuits 24/7
    (3) if possible wear wincyette nightwear – to Tescos.
    (4) Sell all your shares (if you have any) in everything * especially Sainsbury’s which is the hunting ground for provender of the Middle Classes and which will be as extinct as the Middle Classes are.
    (5) Buy a large screen TV
    (6) forget further education: there is no certain financial payback for having multiple degrees, getting eye strain, sitting down for hours at a time to write essays and reading until your eyeballs fall out of their sockets from muscle exhaustion – there is, however, money aplenty in being able to complete Social Security forms.
    (7) forget the commandment “Thous shalt not steal” – everyone else is – starting with our beloved Government and ending with the person who has been home for THREE generations in lieu of getting a job.
    Think that’s about enough for now.
    PS I don’t plan on going extinct.

    • Hannah says:

      Wowzers. Well, thanks for taking the time to read the post. As I said, all comments will get published. I would like to say I don’t agree with some/many of your points, but like I said, all comments will get aired. Perhaps I am middle class, but that isn’t relevant to the post really, and Sure Start centres are open to everyone. It shouldn’t matter if a person is living on the smallest income and breastfeeding, or living in a mansion and bottle feeding. Sure Start centres are open to all, providing support where needed whatever that may be. Or supposedly.
      Thanks again for reading.

  5. Misty says:

    I’d never heard of this but I think you’ve completely hit the nail on the head. Apparently it’s not enough to punish families by slashing their benefits but they now have to try and destroy some mothers only source of outreach. It’s disgusting.
    I understand the country is struggling, but taking money from those who are already at rock bottom and then continuing to take it from a place of what I can only describe as solitude for some people is absurd.
    Very well written, couldn’t have agreed more!

  6. Catherine says:

    I think it smacks of an ill-thought-out attempt to tick boxes (“Breastfeeding=Good! Encourage Breastfeeding!”) without (as usual) taking advice from those on the front line

    Hospitals/PCTs (I think) are already graded on rates of breastfeeding initiation, but that’s a much more straightforward measurable. You’re absolutely right – there is no way that this could be monitored in any meaningful way.

    I loathe the introduction of financial incentives in health/education/social provision anyway, and this is a particularly bad example. It would be bad enough if it were just a head-shaking example of ineptitude, but as you say, this has the potential really to harm people who need Sure Start (whoever they are).

  7. Pols80 says:

    Great blog post – I hadn’t heard of this.

    I am what the media would have you believe is a rare breed – a breastfeeding mum who firmly believes in ‘each to their own’. No explanation, no justification, just doing what you do for the benefit of you and your kids. Most of us parents are, aren’t we?

    So of course I think this is ludicrous. And of course it will just lead to manipulation of results, and to lack of transparency, and most probably to division and judgemental attitudes.

    I can’t even work out what the motive would be for such a ludicrous notion. Surely support for families should be a priority which is a constant, not one which is reliant on parents choosing the method of infant feeding the government deems to be most appropriate? I can only speculate that the somewhat misguided intention is to improve breastfeeding rates. Clearly I am nowhere near as qualified to comment on this subject as Just Call Me Dave, but my humble opinion is that bribery quite frankly isn’t the way to go. Perhaps instead of trying to push women who do not wish to breastfed into doing so, we ought to channel the effort and resources into offering accessible and worthwhile support to those who do. Astoundingly, 50% of women in my local area who breastfed at birth have stopped doing so by the time they are discharged from hospital. And that’s when they’re in the same building as so-called experts. Once they hit the community the support network dwindles even further, and I hear so many women who have been given wrong information and absolutely no support.

    But no, let’s all just hold women to ransom and threaten them with the loss of a valuable service. Good work, Dave. Brilliant.

    • Hannah says:

      Thank you so much for reading the post and for replying. Much appreciated. Your reply was exactly what i wanted to say about it all – but you have done it so much better! Thank you.

  8. Russ says:

    By doing a bit of research into this it actually doesn’t sound that bad. The aim of the scheme is to identify areas with families who have the greatest need. Focusing on health, education and level of contact with the child.

    For example, helping children start school at the expected level of education so they don’t fall behind.

    These are pretty big issues you want to improve and monitoring levels across children’s centres seems like a good way to judge funding priorities.

    It might seem like a pain having targets to meet but actually they’re already some things that are monitored anyway (e.g. baby weight/health) and they might help identify areas that could receive helpful funding.

    Regarding breast feeding the target is for babies up to 6-8 weeks of age, so it’s they’re not going to get penalised for older children. I don’t think low targets will mean a children’s centre is shut either. If it’s anything like the schools system, under performing centres may receive more funding to help bring them up to standard.

    • Hannah says:

      Thanks so much for reading the blog and for commenting. I appreciate it.
      As I said in my post, some of the target initiatives are brilliant (reading with your kid, making sure everyone tries to get kids to a certain educational standard before school etc) and should be encouraged. Totally. My beef was not with any of these.
      Sure start centres are directed at families with the greatest needs, which is as it should be. However, restricting funding because a mother chooses/decides/whatever not to breastfeed is not relevant, surely, to meeting the additional needs of a family? Encourage? Yes. lets do so, as I said. Brilliant! But to penalise because a mother does not breastfeed up to 8 weeks? No.
      Any online research conducted (and yes, I did do my research – thanks for the nod otherwise) will be presented in a positive light, because this is a TRIAL and as yet, the majority of online information is presented in its scheme form, aka, from the Government. However, should your County be one of the Counties in which said programme is being trialled, I would urge you to talk in person to your sure start centres – the staff and the members. I have. And I have encountered a very different view on this initiative.
      Again, thanks for reading and for commenting – much appreciated.

      • Russ says:

        Sorry genuinely didn’t mean that first sentence to sound so patronising/wanky. Will learn to re-read stuff before I post.

        My original point (poorly made) was that the range of things they’re trying to achieve seems good and I hadn’t seen any mention of cutting funding for centres not achieving targets, but I have only read what’s on the web (not all government… well Nursery World might be who knows) so you’re right next time I’m at our Sure Start centre I’ll ask them.

        Coming from a local government world where funding is really tight, targets if used correctly can help improve services like this and move funding to where it’s needed.

  9. Great post. Sure Start centres are an excellent idea. These targets? Not so.

  10. Sam Dolan says:

    I am assuming that JCMD breastfed all of his children? I don’t have much to add as I’ve already ranted this one out with you. Just wanted to congratulate you on a fantastically worded report. I would be a rotting heap without the help of sure start centres both here in Bucks and previously in Ealing. They do an amazing job and are a wonderful place for people from all walks of life with different stories to tell with one main thing in common, kids. No matter what class/background/level of education you come from, we all suffer the same anxieties and can support each other. The wonderful staff at our centre mill around and listen caringly, support and advise kindly and offer a tissue if things really get too bad. They are an invaluable part of our communities and need to be supported rather than penalised. Ah, it seems I did have more to add, well!! It boils my blood. Xx

  11. Emily Evans says:

    The toddler group that I run is linked with a Sure Start Centre, the lady that comes to the group every week (and is amazingly helpful) had to go on a breast feeding course around a year ago, and at that time she said how odd it was that they were being asked to help mums with breast feeding,as generally you don’t take newborns to sure start centres (guess mums are too busy cleaning up sick and getting some normality back into their lives!!) if you have stopped breast feeding before you go to a sure start centre, they won’t be able to help you start again. Equally if you have mastered the skill of breast feeding, you probably won’t need any help!! Particularly sad is our sure start centre used to have 5 members of staff and now they have two. It saddens me that these centres with fantastic facilities ate having to cut down the support they give. By the time the government realise the damage they have done, my children will be too old to go! Xx

  12. hitmanharris says:

    Read this earlier in the week but didn’t have time to comment or process all the things that annoyed me. The biggest one is that central to this policy is the assumption that all Mothers can be persuaded to breastfeed with the right support. If you don’t then you must be lazy or negligent about your child’s health. As a family we received fantastic support with breast feeding that involved us all but ultimately it didn’t help. I don’t think sure start should be penalised for matters out of their control.

    Yet another example of a professional politician with no real world experience creating a policy on something they nothing about.

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