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Posted on 3 March 2011 at 17:13 GMT

Sure Start campaign in Manchester gains momentum

Sure Start protest in Manchester, photo Hugh Caffrey

Sure Start protest in Manchester, photo Hugh Caffrey   (Click to enlarge)

Forty Sure Start centres across Manchester face closure and privatisation as the city council carries out the government spending cuts at the expense of jobs and services.
One quarter of children in Manchester grow up in severe poverty. That is 25,000 young people in one of Britain's biggest cities who are "in homes with no heating, without eating a proper meal and without proper school uniforms to put on in the morning" according to charity Save the Children.
Part of the solution is an expansion of public services. Yet the government and council are smashing up such vital children's and families' services as Sure Start centres.
A Sure Start worker and Unison member in Manchester explains why we must save these services and how parents and staff are campaigning against the threats.

Manchester council plan to privatise and outsource children's centres to PVIs (Private, Voluntary and Independent providers). It will directly impact on the most vulnerable children and it will impact on working parents because it's going to mean a hike in childcare fees.

It reduces quality because it will be profit-led, and essentially the council are expecting staff to stick around to be sold over lock, stock and barrel to the PVIs.

A large proportion of private nurseries are staffed by women aged 16 to 21, who haven't had as much training and investment in them as older workers. They get paid less money, don't get sick pay and only get statutory holidays.

Essentially Sure Start has a 50:50 split, of places for children especially in need and places for everyone in the community. There will be less play opportunities for children under five, for children who wouldn't have opportunities for play because of a lack of money.

Sure Start provides a 'core offer' of services: to vulnerable families through out-reach, health-related support, education - like access to training courses and employment, and money advice like the budgeting advice course for people who need help to avoid loan sharks and put their money into credit unions etc.

Staff's response is anger at the prospect we're just going to be sold up the river, anger that the head of Children's Services has just taken a huge retirement pay-out. She stated at one of the Children's Services briefings that she doesn't care who provides these services so long as they're good. Nice one!

She argued for a totally defeatist attitude, 'there's no point in campaigning', she stated that. Staff were devastated, demoralised, saying 'what's the point'.

But the parents took it up to another level, so the staff were like, 'we're going to have a go about this!' The parents' response was to get together at children's centres, making a very organised effort to get in touch with local MPs and local councillors and letting them know we're not having it.

There are petitions going round, and they're getting in the local media with articles.

This is a proper grassroots thing - mums and dads and grandmas. One of the parents who uses Sure Start services was so angered by the council's proposals that she sat outside her house with the baby in the buggy and doing the petition and she got 40 signatures.

She gave the other parents on the estate the petition and they took it away and got it filled out too.

All this brought about a demonstration on Saturday 26 February. Parents, carers and children from various Sure Start children's centres across Manchester descended on the town hall with buggies and push chairs to send out a clear message to the council that they strongly oppose the huge cuts to children's services.

The protest saw parents and children with homemade banners from all different backgrounds coming together to save a key part of their local communities.

Parents voiced strongly that families should not be paying for bankers' mistakes and that the current government is allowing the rich to walk away and ordinary working people are picking up the tab.

The demo was also attended by Unite's union branch at the council that has shown great support to the campaign, including doing a leaflet and petition to support it.

Jimmy Thornton, the Unite branch secretary asked that the MPs and various councillors at the demo commit to funding Sure Start and ensuring that services remain open.

Parents were pleased at the level of support that has been shown, however they acknowledge that much work is to be done after the protest to maintain momentum.

They next plan to send petitions, testimonials and case studies to prime minister David Cameron, council leader Richard Leese and Manchester Central MP Tony Lloyd.

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