About 6,000 UK children and young people die every year. Around two-thirds of these are aged under-five, and the majority are under the age of one. The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for deaths in this age group.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently launched a report about these deaths rates and concluded that the risk of such deaths was highest amongst the poorest families in the Country. Research indicates that the differences in life outcomes for children born into the poorest families are far worse than those born into the wealthiest families in the UK.
Poverty also effects the later life expectancy of men and women - with men living 9.2 years less long and women 6.8 years less long in deprived areas, when compared to those born in less poor areas.
The Sure Start Children's Centres were put in place to support the poorest of families with children aged 0 to 5 years. They are aimed at supporting parents and children by improving their health and well-being, their parenting skills - giving the poorest children the best possible start in life. It was a recognition that children who have a bad start in life find it very difficult to catch up with their wealthier counterparts later on.
I am not a child health expert but I do Chair an Advisory Group for one Sure Start Centre in one deprived area. The aim of the Group is to bring together health professionals and other people who work with families in that area to advise and support the Centre but to also look at ways of working together to support poor local families. This must surely be one way of addressing these relatively high child death rates.
But Sure Start Centres are being closed and their role and usefulness is being questioned. Between 2010 and 2013 the number of Centres fell from 3,631 to 3,116 and the Education Select Committee of MPs has said there is a lack of clarity about their core purpose.
This might well be the case with some Centres but - given the death rates of our poorest children - we should make every effort to improve rather than close these centres in the future. If child death rates are so high in our poorest families then surely we need to make best use of resources aimed at helping that very group.
At their best I am sure these centres can help the health services work together - the centres can be a focus point for the midwives; for the health visitors; for the adult education services and all the others involved in supporting families. Even the best and most dedicated professionals can end up working in a 'silo' and not working with other professionals who support the same client groups. The Sure Start Centres are - in my opinion - a natural place to bring these agencies together.
The Centres can provide a friendly place for parents to come into - with a team of people who can build up a trusting relationship with parents who have had negative experiences in the lives - especially in their relationships with the 'authorities'. It can be very difficult for someone who has had a series of negative experiences to actually walk through the door to ask for advice and support from strangers so part of the task is to go out and knock on doors in the local area and make that human connection - the face to face invitation - to come into the centre.
Children born into poorer families have an extra task in life - they have to overcome much more than children born into wealthier families. They are less likely to be able to contribute as much to society and more likely to need extra support from the rest of us unless they are given a better start. Any notion that - as adults - they are all just lazy and happy to live on benefits ignores the reality of life. How many of us would be so different if we had little money - a poorer education - fewer examples around us of success and fewer reasons to be optimistic?
Sure Start Centres can work - I am convinced of it. They can be targeted to help the poorest children have a better start and, in the end, they help wider society because they can enable people to contribute more and need less help and they must surely play an important role in helping more children survive childhood. We should be very careful to make improvements to them where they may be failing but very slow to close them down.
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