The Surest of Starts: Universal Service in the UK

This afternoon, my daughter and I are going to a Mum and Toddler group to do some messy play. Like many other children her age, she goes to Nursery, sometimes to a place at childcare. She sees a health visitor, and has access to a speech and language therapist. She has access to a wide range of courses, groups and activities. She likes nothing better than to watch Peppa Pig whilst scoffing a huge packet of bacon crisps, and making snuffling oinking noises. We can access all of these services through our local Sure Start centre and we are concerned, as is the figurehead of the centres Miss Peppa Pig herself and a number of children’s charities, about their future.

There is current debate as to whether the Sure Start scheme is reaching those who need the service most in its current form. Therein lays the problem; who “deserves” to have access to services? What price to deliver “fair chances… to everyone… [so they may]… realise their potential”? What will happen to those who need these services because there is poor provision elsewhere in the community?

The Government has stated that the “universal service” offered by the centres means that poorer families can “miss out”, but this assumes that everyone within a defined area has the same socio-economic background.

An area may be seen as “wealthy”, but it does not follow that all of its residents are. Our local Sure Start centre have been told that only centres where it is deemed the services are “needed” will be kept open; areas that are seen as socially and economically deprived.

Who is to say though, that just because an area is deprived there won’t be richer families residing within it? Or that there won’t be poorer families living in areas that are purportedly socially and economically rich? Will those “sharp elbowed middle classes” of Cameron’s need to display their NHS Tax Credit Exemption Certificate to gain entry? Will poorer families need to display their milk tokens? It is increasingly clear that the millionaire members of the Government have little, if any, idea as to what constitutes membership to the middle or working classes.

There is no recognition that the class that a person “belongs to” will not preclude their child from having learning difficulties. Disability does not respect class. Wing’s study of same, which examined autism diagnosis rates against social class holds true; there is no qualifier where disability is concerned, but those with more knowledge will seek more help. There is no acknowledgment that, if your child has delayed development, you will need help regardless of the area or class you belong to.

The same commitment shown last year to a universal Sure Start has become “targeted support” under the coalition government. A suggestion that schools no longer be a universal service would be met with outrage; what will have targeted support next? Will Academies diverge from their initial purpose, only existing in the more affluent demographics?

“Targeted support” ignores the EPPE 3-11 project that showed children benefit from being in environments where there is a mix of social demographic; where the confident speakers help the less confident ones in developing speech, and where communities can be formed by children mixing with each other. It ignores stigmatising families based on their use of a facility. It ignores issues of pride, issues of reason and issues of fact.

As a parent, I will feel this more keenly than someone who does not have children. The daughter that I mentioned above is a lovely wee cow, who also happens to be my lovely wee autistic cow. Her diagnosis was started by the health visitor at our Sure Start centre, as we did not have an assigned one due to cut backs by our local authority. The speech and language therapist at the centre has helped us to develop exercises and games to develop her speech, as local services had a huge waiting list. She has seen a play worker to help her develop her play skills so she can integrate better with her peers.

With “targeted support”, she may not have had the chance of early intervention based purely on where we were living. Every child deserves the chance to be the best they can; and if the incumbent government takes nothing else on board from their predecessors, let them at least keep the ethos that every child matters.
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Karen Wiltshire
Ramblings from a deranged, adult company starved, wibbly mind
Karen Wiltshire

Karen Wiltshire

Ramblings from a deranged, adult company starved, wibbly mind

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