Sure Start Success And A Million Small Conversations

Small children playing Professor John Bynner’s piece in today’s Guardian concerns the need for a ‘science of the family’ – the need to recognise how families large and small work, and to debate how those who seek to support children and their parent/s should best interface on the basis of that knowledge. Of course this is essential; but then we need also a mechanism for sharing these ideas. My own work with Sure Start suggests it’s all those little, day-to-day, conversations between colleagues as they explore common understandings, which may best deliver this.
Early Years & Sure Start.
I’d agree strongly with John Bynner – who has followed closely the national Sure Start evaluation (NESS) programmes – that an applied ‘science of the family’, frameworked around the emerging shape of Sure Start Children’s Centres, is now critical to prospects for longer-term success.
In summary Bynner’s message is that involving parents and studying projects which work is crucial to improving children’s wellbeing.
The transition to Sure Start Children’s Centres
I have undertaken quite a lot of work with Sure Start programmes, as they make the transition, within various Local Authorities settings, to Children’s Centres. This is a vitally important programme, and there’s a pressing need for even more research into how best, in the interests of everyone, we should support children and their parents in the task of ensuring a happy childhood and positive ways of achieving adulthood.
The Sure Start evaluation programme has already indicated many ways this could happen; now we must equip more professionals and other practitioners working with children and their parents, to make these examples of good practice the norm.
From pilot programmes to good practice
But we have to remember that Sure Start programmes began at the turn of the Millennium as individual, isolated, almost silo-ed, initiatives, trying to find their way in uncharted waters.
Studies such as those of NESS have helped everyone to move towards a more coherent whole; but the emphases within Sure Start programmes in different places are often still different, within the overall requirements, because people working on the programmes come from different practitioner backgrounds.
As one example, early years and health practitioners are not often geared towards the more formal end of adult basic education and employment skills training – which is in many cases the key to unlocking doors to the future for those who have, so far, had not a lot.
Commonalities between professional disciplines
Despite the increasingly clear insistence from government on joined up frameworks to support children and their families, not enough senior people ‘on the ground’ are as yet willing to concede that this really must happen in meaningful ways.
This change in perspective would require further revisiting professional / practitioner silos; GPs, teachers, social workers and so on are not always good at that sort of thing. But early years practitioners, midwives, community volunteers etc have essential understandings to offer in cross-disciplinary terms, if they can be put in a position (and fully supported in these extra intra-professional skills?) to do so.
There’s a need for substantial elements of advocacy and aspiration in all this. ‘Good’ parenting and happy childhoods don’t just happen; they occur when the context is right. This is where Sure Start can help.
Working together
We need to find ways to encourage all concerned to work closely together; and that has to start with valuing and learning from a million small and positive conversations between practitioners of all sorts, to help us focus on delivering our aspiration of every child being a happy child.
My own experience tells me we need to keep translating these perspectives between those on the ground and the decision-makers, so as to realign and focus collaboratively, in our different ways, on supporting the people, individuals, families and communities, whom we are in the business of helping.
A million small conversations
It’s the ‘million small conversations’ – hopefully based on everyone, not just the powers-that-be, knowing the fundamentals of good practice and what the research tells us – which make this transition.
Practitioners talk all the time to individuals in families and local communities; their wisdom is essential; they are trusted by clients where others may not be.
But the flow of information has to be two-way. The decision-makers know the outcomes of wider research on ‘what works’, for instance, and they need to share that much more proactively than they often currently do.
Learning from each other
Talking with those who are on the ground day-by-day isn’t an optional extra here; it’s how we all learn. And this these conversations are what, in my opinion, are most often lacking so far…. which perhaps is also why progress to enabling those who experience disadvantage is so painfully slow.
I’ve started several explorations of how to align different disciplines towards the overarching Sure Start objective, only to be told by those working in the service that they ‘haven’t got time’ to meet me as a group to examine what’s happening.
Before we finish, the reverse is always true: these practitioners and professionals have by then become autonomous in their desire to keep in touch and share good practice. Change can happen, albeit not always as we expect.
In the end this becomes a virtuous circle; we really do need to value the currency of relaxed inter-disciplinary discussion, forgetting the hierarchies and valuing the common goals.
Different approaches, different outcomes
It’s been instructive to see how the structures of programmes such as Sure Start may and / or may not help to raise the aspirations of local people; and that’s no criticism of people who have chosen as best they can one set of ways over another to try to support those who are less fortunate.
But the disconjunctions of different practitioner perspectives need to be acknowledged as a challenge, to get this enabling of aspirations on the agenda.
I’ve started projects which focused on health in early years, and ended up with serious discussions also about local economic strategies and adult ed.
There wasn’t in the end a problem here, it was just that the economic and education people felt as unknowledgeable about early years, as the early years practitioners did about them.
How do families ‘work’?
To return to the theme of John Bynner’s piece, we don’t as yet have very complete knowledge of how families (whether of two or ten…) work, especially when it comes to positive service delivery.
And we can add to that that the community volunteers and mums and dads had never been asked till then what they thought either about the ‘education and training’ side of things. What sort of local enterprises would they like? (The answer was often healthy local food….) What sort of education and training is best? (Answer, usually: the sort you can get near home, with childcare…)
Once again, the way forward was to get those small conversations going….
Synergies to reduce disadvantage
The goodwill is certainly there; it’s the synergies that need to be nurtured until they can stand up for themselves.
There has to be a better model for reducing disadvantage. I seriously propose that part of it is to embrace the idea of everyone (clients, where they wish to, practitioners on the ground, and decision-makers) talking to each other, as equals, in those million small conversations.
Read more about Early Years & Sure Start.

Posted on March 26, 2009, in Education, Health And Welfare, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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