The fabric of Britain as we know it is being ripped apart. So much is changing, almost behind our backs, we haven't got time to notice what is happening to us. And it is happening fast.

Friday, 6 January 2012

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me : Twelve Forsaken Futures...

Every Child is Supposed to Matter. Right?

During our earliest years a large part of the pattern for our future life is set. Investment in a child pays dividends in terms of health and educational outcomes and future life prospects. Investment in early support for families pays later dividends for society as a whole.This was exactly where Sure Start stepped in, aiming to ensure every child had the best start in life, initially by targeting those children and families most in need, in the most vulnerable communities and breaking the cycle of disadvantage of the poorest families. But Labour saw Sure Start as a universal service for all families with children under five and ensured it spread attracting families from all backgrounds, breaking down barriers of isolation and opportunity. Three million children attended Sure Start centres, groups and play sessions last year. Sure Start centres offered family health services, breastfeeding support, emotional support, childcare and early learning, advice on parenting and support for looking for work or training opportunities. Add in the opportunities for parents to be able to socialise, and it is clear to see they are a gem. For many it is more than that, for many Sure Start is an absolute life line.

Although a Labour initiative, Sure Start appeared to have cross party support, Coalition Children's Minister Tim Loughton said the government was "100% committed" to Sure Start.

David Cameron speaking before the election to the NCT said.. "We are strongly committed to Sure Start Children’s Centres.”

Fantastic! The future is looking good then?

Not at all...

Funding of Sure Start through the Early Intervention Grant was cut by 11% in last year’s emergency budget, and again in the comprehensive spending review. Now the security of a ring fenced budget has been removed by the Coalition. The Department for Education says of the Early Intervention Grant “local authorities are free to decide their priorities for its use.”

The tragedy and reality is Sure Start is being decimated by cuts as councils face tough decisions. Hammersmith and Fulham Council as an example are cutting the Borough’s Sure Start budget by 45%. As a consequence Centres are being starved of funds, services are cut, relocating, merging and closing. Coalition policy is turning a much loved universal service into a shell. The cuts will affect everyone. This from a mum in west London:

“There are plans to move child health, antenatal and postnatal services including breastfeeding support to another Sure Start, so having to take a train/bus and another bus plus walk a long distance, potentially with birth injuries and older children. The reasoning? The only Sure Start centre now is in an area of deprivation so gets the funding. The original area is not although there is still clinical need and considerable evidence that early intervention in child and maternal health leads to reduced NHS costs later. This area has a higher maternal age than most and consequently an increased risk of postnatal depression, c-section rates and other factors associated with older mothers.”

Families may well become isolated and will certainly lose the direct access to specialist health, education and safeguarding services and opportunities for early intervention and support are lost. This country will pay the price. Providing families with the support they need when they most need it, rather than picking up the pieces will cost far less in the long run.

And it’s not just Sure Start....

So, as they claim, will the Government’s plans still deliver the best start in life for every child, regardless of background? I fail to see how. Many other early intervention and support services are under threat too. Here are five, maybe lesser known programmes under threat due to ill advised funding cuts.

Funding cuts to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) mean that in many areas primary aged children and pre schoolers with mental health problems will go without referrals, assessment, diagnosis and support as limited money available is directed towards teenagers in greatest need. Take away the early intervention here and there will be a dramatic increase in the numbers of teenagers with severe mental health problems within the next ten years. What a tragic consequence of a short sighted funding cut. My friend's daughter's anorexia started early in Year 5, I have seen first hand how early intervention is so vital, having to wait for help doesn't bear thinking about.

“Draining money from early intervention services is short-sighted, and just stores up problems for the future as young people are left without access to early help, meaning mental health problems become more serious and entrenched.”
Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive, YoungMinds

Funding Cuts to Portage So much for David Cameron having an empathy with parents of disabled children. He obviously has a very short memory. Portage workers provide a service for children from birth or diagnosis until statutory school age who have developmental or learning difficulties, physical disabilities or other complex needs, and they are committed to securing inclusion. Families are supported at home, and children can be supported one to one in nursery classes. Government funding for Portage ceased in entirety at the end of 2011 at which point they became totally reliant on charity and fundraising such as Just Giving. Already the service is shrinking, experienced Portage workers are losing their jobs and far fewer families benefitting.

Just before Christmas I was invited to a Coffee Morning and Cake sale to raise funds for our local Portage. Cake sales? It has come to that, a service as important as Portage reduced to scratching around for funds. This is not sustainable and I fear the service lives on borrowed time. More children and families will become isolated at a time when they are feeling most bewildered, vulnerable and isolated. Portage cuts will add extra pressure on the limited pot of SEN funding, so fewer children will benefit from extra support. It is not right. Children with additional needs should get the help they require.

Funding cuts to Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) At least 30% in some areas which means that waiting lists grow ever longer, affecting a child’s education and socialisation. This example comes from a neighbour of mine - their concerns were raised when their son's speech development stagnated at about the age of 19 months. The obvious port of call would have been their Health Visitor, but the Health visiting team has been reduced down to such an extent that this service in almost non existent in our Borough.

Initially the family visited their GP who suspected glue ear and referred them to the ENT specialist to discuss having grommets. There followed a very frustrating and lengthy period of successive appointments when the family felt they weren't getting anywhere. The first time speech and language therapy was mentioned was by the audiologist who seemed surprised they hadn't already been referred. Because of funding cuts, in our part of London the waiting list for SLT is incredibly long, it was easily going to be six, if not closer to twelve months. The parents were getting increasingly worried that speech delay was affecting his behaviour and social development, recognising the greater delay the greater the problem. They took the very difficult decision to pay for private SLT treatment.

"What I'm angry about is that if he was waiting for NHS treatment, he'd still be waiting. If we were relying on Health Visitors to spot developmental delay we would have still been waiting. We are not proud that we went private. If he had been treated promptly with grommets or speech therapy less intervention would have been needed. It goes against all my principles to go private when we have great NHS practitioners, but I felt we had no choice here. We were lucky we had savings, I say we, I mean our son. The small amount I had put by in a savings account for him has been spent on SLT.

If he had not had the treatment he would still be struggling and his behaviour would have deteriorated further - he would have had far worse attention problems. This would have had a knock on effect at nursery and school. He would require greater assistance to communicate and would be further behind. This cannot be a good way to manage costs - spend more later by delaying intervention?"

The earlier a hearing problem is identified and intervention begun the less serious its impact will be on the development of receptive and expressive communicate skills. The gap in academic achievement between children with normal hearing and those with hearing loss usually widens as they progress through school. Children who suffer hearing loss can easily suffer from social isolation, negative psychological effects, poor concentration, worry, frustation and anxiety. Cutting back the opportunities for early intervention here just stores problems for the long term and will cost far more to address.

Funding Cuts to 'Every Child A Reader' The despondency of a child struggling to learn to read is palpable. Their confidence, self esteem and motivation plummets, they feel anxious and miserable and will be acutely aware of their peers' progress. For them the whole school environment will be intimidating as will learning itself. The consequences of a child struggling with reading accumulate over time and can become monumental in terms of educational development and future life opportunities.

So there was a certain irony and sadness in Stephen Twigg celebrating the CBE of Jean Gross in the New Year's Honours. Her highly effective Every Child a Reader scheme is currently desperately struggling for funds. Removal of ring fencing for educational initiatives has left this early intervention scheme amongst others very vulnerable indeed.

Every Child a Reader supported the development of literacy skills in the youngest primary aged children, with daily, intensive, specialised and personalised teaching to help those struggling. Investment at this point reaps dividends and can genuinely be life changing. Researchers at London's Institute of Education found children caught up with their peers in as little as twelve weeks, whilst those not in the scheme fell progressively further behind. And the progress is lasting. The costs may be high but surely the costs of not doing this are even higher? A child struggling to read aged six is likely to still be struggling at the end of Primary, putting a huge additional financial strain on the secondary sector with increased need for SEN support, compounded with higher levels of truancy and exclusion.

"Ultimately, if you do not get a child reading by the time they leave primary school, by the time they arrive at secondary, the curriculum is just a closed book to them, literally."
Michael Gove.

Well quite. So why is it then Michael Gove, you saw fit to remove the ring fencing and put schemes like this at risk? It is lunacy. These children are vulnerable, and surely we need to catch them before they fall?

Funding cuts to Home Start Home Start provides regular, informal and practical support to families under severe stress in their own homes. 35,000 families contacted Home Start last year seeking help. The demand is so high that the service is already over stretched. And yet, 40 Home Start groups face closure in the next 6 months, due to severe funding cuts. Struggling families and vulnerable children are being left without much needed support. The implications are bleak. My friend had tremendous support from her local Home Start worker as she came to terms with terminal cancer whilst trying to cope with four very young children including twin babies. They were a family in crisis and at complete breaking point. And guess what? Her Home Start group is one that is facing the axe.

There's a pattern emerging...

All these cuts to early intervention and support programmes are a false economy. Money invested here will SAVE in the long term:
  • By helping ALL children grow up to be productive and independent.
  • By improving developmental, social and educational gains for ALL children.
  • By reducing the future costs of Special Educational Needs.
  • By reducing costs of future health care needs.
  • By reducing the stress, frustration and feelings of isolation for children and their families.
Funding cuts to services for younger children run in direct opposition to the government "rhetoric" in support of early intervention. Society will be the biggest loser. The benefits of early intervention and support can only be realised by prioritising resources across local government, the NHS and entire public sector, not cutting them. The Coalition Government are blatantly going for the quick fix whilst ignoring the long term picture. They are burying their heads in the sand. What a bleak future. I think we face a financial time bomb by failing to invest in children's support services and early intervention measures. This will come back to haunt us.

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  1. Brilliantly written and highly emotive. Why can't the government see that they are creating a timebomb when it comes to the mental health and education of the young generation?

  2. Weeeeeel, I'm in two minds about Sure Start - some of the centres were very badly placed. Ours opened up in direct competition with our local mum-run toddler group, which has subsequently closed down. Even middle-class Surrey mums seem to prefer a free Sure Start centre to playing £1.50 a week for support with their toddlers. I can see where they were useful to many children, and I'm sad the programme closed, but if were to open up again, I'd like to see a lot more research go into what is already available in an area before a centre is opened, maybe working with local groups already in place instead of out-competing them.

  3. Anonymous in that instance I would have thought inviting the local mum-run toddler group to operate either in or affiliated to Sure Start would make sense.

    We have no Sure Start and soon to be no baby clinic or postnatal/breastfeeding drop-in and there is an expectation we are wealthy yummy mummies who will just pay for it ourselves.

    I'm also in Surrey. Richmond to be exact.

  4. All I can say is, very selfishly, thank goodness I don't have small children/babies. Because this government isn't interested in their welfare.

    Which makes me very sad, as well as angry at their shortsightedness.

  5. "local authorities are free to decide their priorities"

    You can say that again! Our local authority still has a load of "executives" on over £100,000 a year, and a huge number of "managers" on over £50,000. Perhaps they could start by cutting some of those instead...

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Don't know what happened there!
    What I said was Quite Anonymous, well said!

  8. Brilliant post and a damning indictment of a government that really doesn't care about the future of millions of children. But by the time these children grow up, they will be somebody else's problem, not the ConDems


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