“We don’t understand why the centres are being cut – the children are the future.”
An opinion echoed by parents and communities all over Manchester as Sure Start Centres become the latest victims of vicious spending cuts in the hope of saving millions of pounds.
Manchester City Council has proposed drastic changes to the way in which childcare will be provided in the future, and as the consultation period to highlight these changes comes to a close, what are the prospects for child care provisions in our city?
A gradual withdrawal from council-funded childcare means thousands of families across Manchester will have to look for alternative facilities as local authority services are shut down and private sector businesses are encouraged to take over the centres.
Clayton Sure Start Children’s Centre, in North Road, not only provides excellent childcare but a wide range of services for the whole community.
From breast-feeding advice and baby massage classes to stop-smoking support groups and elderly luncheon clubs, it offers services for everybody who lives in Clayton.
This is something the council is trying to encourage – community hubs with provisions to support the entire neighbourhood.
But, despite Clayton Sure Start’s wonderful community spirit and activities for the whole family, it is not immune from the wrath of the public sector spending cuts and is at risk of being closed down.
“I think a lot of people would be devastated if the centre closed,” said mum and Save Manchester Sure Start campaigner Danielle Leadbeater.
“It is part of the community, it is where everyone meets and everybody gets to know each other.
“It is about integration within the community – that means a lot to a lot of people.”
Danielle’s seven-year-old son attended the Clayton centre when he was little. She said that without affordable childcare being provided by Sure Start, she would not have been able to go to college as there was nobody else to look after him while she studied.
She added that her son had suffered from anger issues as a toddler but because of the support and guidance the centre offered, he was able to get the best help available.
“We don’t understand why the centres are being cut,” said Danielle.
“The children are the future.”
Danielle started the Save Manchester Sure Start campaign group with friend Joanne McCann to explain to parents exactly what Manchester City Council is suggesting and to fight against the centres being lost.
The council is, however, proposing some fairly encouraging, albeit very vague, developments.
An outreach facility will be developed which will aim to have a healthcare professional visit all newborns in their home as soon as possible after birth.
But this is a service already provided by NHS health visitors, so it is unclear exactly what will be different.
The council also plans to change the use of its Sure Start and other early years care centres so that they can be used by more people more effectively. This will involve closing some of the buildings and selling them to the highest bidding independent or private childcare provider.
And the most controversial proposal is to withdraw completely from providing day care by April 2014, leaving parents and carers with the huge dilemma of finding alternative, and perhaps more expensive, private facilities.
However, these are just proposals for the moment and the last few council-led consultations will continue into the New Year.
In addition to these, there will also be changes which will take place without consultation.
From September 2012, the council will fund only 15 hours of free childcare, as opposed to the 30 it currently provides, and fees for this will increase from £126 a week for a full-time place to £150 from 2 April 2012.
Danielle and Joanne worry the information available on the council’s website is not explained thoroughly and so they are encouraging anybody who is still unsure to go along to any of the events held in children’s centres across the city.
Manchester City Council’s Children’s Services Councillor, Afzal Khan, said the proposals would enable the council to use its reduced resources to the best effect.
“We believe the emphasis on outreach will help us and our health sector partners to identify those most in need, and start helping them and their parents earlier – even before birth in some cases – so they begin school ready to thrive,” he said.
But what about the centres which already provide high-quality day care for children and offer a range of services for the whole community?
Mike Livingstone, Manchester City Council’s Director of Children’s Services, encouraged people to let their views be known.
“The changes proposed are important, and it’s vital we get things right,” he said.
“We want to hear views from parents, carers, staff who work with children, and anyone who has an interest in the preschool care and education of children.”
There are currently around 755 children on waiting lists for Sure Start Centres in Manchester. But Danielle, who works in private day care herself, said parents would rather wait for council places than opt for independent care because of how well they prepare children for school.
But it is not just the social aspect of Sure Start that is so important. According to Danielle, the recovery of the British economy has a vested interest in keeping these centres open and for free childcare to remain widely available. She believes without this, more mums would have to stay at home to look after their families – that means more people claiming benefits and fewer taxes being paid.
The consultation lasts until 2 January 2012 and people are encouraged to have their say by visiting http://www.manchester.gov.uk/surestartchanges or by attending one of the meetings.
Once the consultation process has closed, the council will produce a report and it will be up to the Council Executive to make a final decision.
To find out more about Save Manchester Sure Start and to get involved with the campaign, visit www.facebook.com/#!/pages/SAVE-Manchester-SURE-Starts/ 109454499134789?sk=info