Sure Start in the Recession

The public sector – through whatever fault, Lehman Brothers, state getting too big, decide amongst yourselves – will have to make tremendous cuts. We can (and will) pour scorn on George Osborne for being in the party of VAT raising, only to fund inheritance tax exemption for 3,000 of the richest estates, but for the moment severe cuts is our lot. This among other things, has spurred on calls for creativity and ingenuity in commission services, so as to implement the soundest interventions, make best of what existing resources are already available, and not make recession a regression in productivity (or something along those lines).

Children’s Services is no different matter. In-keeping with the Action for Children/NEF document Backing the Future, though we realise public spending will have to be curbed, it is still very wise to carry on spending in the correct, carefully targeted, areas. Investment in children – even in spite of the economic climate – is a must, particularly if uncertainty about double dips (and who knows what else) consume commissioning services.

One example of this kind of thinking can be found in health and social care services, where realistic approaches to how the recession will affect mental health have been met with the further understanding that the services themselves are not immune to economic breakdown. For better or for worse, in an attempt to save money the government has already planned to make best use of existing services, with the intention of cutting waste and coordinating planning, is to merge health and social care commissioning functions. In a white paper, due to be published in the new year, consideration will be made for all social care funding to be delegated to Primary Care Trusts, rather than rolling out to local authorities, to avoid the “shunt” of costs from “NHS to local government and vice versa.”

The Backing the Future report also notes how important investing in targeted interventions are (which report doesn’t), and this has also been repeated in the pre-budget report for the DCSF, which have been requested to cut £350 million in order to save. Plans are underway for the money to come from central budgets, non-departmental public body efficiencies – or quangos, such as the Children’s Workforce Development Council, Children’s Commissioner and family courts body Cafcass – and will entail a review of current pilot schemes to concentrate on what interventions are actually working, as well as cut downs on consultancy work where unnecessary. To reiterate, we are looking at savings by merges and curbing interventions that are not securing results, providing the price is right.

A demos report on parenting entitled Building Character took note of Sure Start in the section on policy directions. It said that where Sure Start once had a ‘Children’s Centre’ model, it has slowly over time developed into an ‘arm’ of the welfare state by emphasising “getting mothers into work” and spotlighting teenage years, rather than focusing on early years and early interventions. The report aims not to denigrate such noble input, but simply – on account of best practice and best use of resources – to point out there is both a strategic risk of losing focus, but also economic dangers in doing the job – and undercutting the vision – of already existing work in this field. Demos identified the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) as a programme that has its focus in targeting “parents most likely to need support in their parenting [for example] teenage mothers.” Additionally, the report found “evidence for a strong link between low income parents and lower confidence when it comes to parenting” thus presenting the case that the NFP could place further emphasis in its existing role to tackle low aspirations among vulnerable parents, especially suited it is to do this given that the scheme was launched as a “government drive to drive against social exclusion.”

Merging initiatives has its merits, provided they guard jobs and secure value, and keeping interventions that protect returns is the sine qua non of the public sector, but in this tight squeeze – thanks no less to a culture of excess and risk – if we could match interventions that stand up with avoiding remit overlapping the finances in the public sector would surely fare better.

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