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Labour’s Sure Start 2.0 should have schools at centre

If there’s a more iconic New Labour domestic policy than Sure Start, I can’t think of one. It ticked all the boxes for both left wing members and centrist cabinet ministers.

As a policy, it was perfect for the Labour party of the late 1990s. Sure Start centres were futuristic, shiny, universal (in terms of their offer) and they smacked of long-term investment. Everyone inside the progressive big tent could sign up. They became seen as one of the Blair government’s signature achievements (in stark contrast to some of the, ahem, wilder foreign policy expeditions).

Then, only adding to their totemic status, Michael Gove metaphorically burnt them all to the ground, claiming spuriously that they didn’t really work. 

Rebuilding Sure Start became one of the most popular potential policies with Labour members in the years since.

And now we can expect that clamour to become much louder. This morning the hugely respected Institute of Fiscal Studies has published a new report that found that Sure Start DID work: the children whose parents took full advantage of the services on offer, DID go on to achieve more in their lives in the long-term. This is the kind of analysis that Labour people love to hear. We were right; Gove was wrong. 

And so the idea of simply inserting a “we will rebuild Sure Start” clause into the party’s manifesto will be even more tempting.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this would be a mistake. Well maybe not a mistake – but perhaps it would be lacking contemporary context and new thinking. 2024 is not 1997, and Blair didn’t win by simply aping Harold Wilson’s policies of the early 1970s.

So what might Sure Start 2.0 look like in the era of Starmer and Phillipson rather than Blair and Blunkett?

I am convinced it would take some of the lessons of its predecessor but go a lot further. For reasons of fiscal rectitude, Phillipson and her team have not gone anything like this far, but you can see the direction of travel if you listen carefully to both the mood music and the concrete announcements that have been made.

A Sure Start 2.0 would surely focus not just on anti-natal to five years old, but from anti-natal all the way through to the end of primary or beyond. It would surely see childcare, early years, wrap-around provision and primary as a whole; as a continuum, if you will. I would imagine that Labour’s existing commitments to completely rethink childcare and fund a universal breakfast offer are just the tip of the iceberg.

Such an offer would move beyond the idea of Sure Start centres as splendid stand-alone institutions and instead think about everything that the programme tried to do for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers – in education, support, health and social services – and reimagine that but for a much wider age-spectrum of children. With schools at the centre.

It would be grander in scale than Sure Start, more integrated and, in the long term, probably better value for money. If its new Labour incarnation achieved the great things that the IFS said it did, imagine what a bigger, bolder and more ambitious version might deliver. It would go a long way to levelling the playing field for not just 0-5-year-olds, but for 0-11-year-olds.

Such a policy would also make a major contribution to a couple of other Labour policy priorities. Firstly, it would not just be an educational initiative, it would be a productivity play too. With the party desperate to increase national output by encouraging people to fulfil their potential, this could be a cornerstone of delivering that.

Secondly, such a policy would surely go a long way to reversing the attendance crisis by bringing down many of the barriers (imagined and otherwise) between schools and their more reticent families. It would, potentially, see the social contract between parents and schools, which in too many places is in tatters, completely rewritten.

To be clear, delivering this vision would take investment, of course, and quite a lot of it, especially if a hike in the workload burden on teachers and heads was to be avoided. 

But should Rachel Reeve’s magic money tree begin to unfurl its tantalising blossom in the next handful of years, what better way to really build the foundations of Starmer’s promised “decade of national renewal”?

Now that’s what I would call a mission.

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