Reaching out

Isolation in both rural and urban communities is being overcome by prize-winning Sure Start initiatives. Judith Napier reports Community isolation can be a barrier to effective early years provision. It can occur in both rural outposts and inner city areas. Now Sure Start is showing how to address these problems with programmes in Northumberland's Haltwhistle and east London's Shadwell.

Isolation in both rural and urban communities is being overcome by prize-winning Sure Start initiatives. Judith Napier reports

Community isolation can be a barrier to effective early years provision. It can occur in both rural outposts and inner city areas. Now Sure Start is showing how to address these problems with programmes in Northumberland's Haltwhistle and east London's Shadwell.

Haltwhistle has been a beneficiary of the Sure Start Western Tynedale (SSWT) programme, which won the Smarter Children's Services category in the Partners in Excellence awards. The team is particularly proud that theirs was the only mini programme among the winners.

The programme serves Haltwhistle and its 12 surrounding parishes. Here the effects on the agricultural community of the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic still linger. Some babies born when farms were cut off from the outside world are now starting school and revealing speech and language difficulties. A more recent problem came with the closure of Haltwhistle's biggest employer. Men had to leave home to find alternative work, effectively creating single-parent families throughout the week.

When programme manager Jackie McCormick arrived in her post, she had an office, a phone, limited funding, 363 under-fives and three childminders to cover those 150 square miles. She recalls, 'I sat there wondering, where do I start?'

Haltwhistle pilot

The programme, applied for by Northumberland County Council and using Children North-East as the lead agency, was initially established as a two-year pilot until March 2004. Now extended to March 2006, it is one of only a handful of mini Sure Starts aiming for children's centre status.

Limited funding (currently 100,000 a year) meant working from the start with mainstream services.

Ms McCormick says that parents were initially suspicious, but a one-stop-shop high street presence helped overcome that. The shop was home to a toy library and play development worker with European Social Fund funding, scrap store, information guidance and signposting (with Learning Northumberland and the Children's Information Service), and a RELATE counselling outreach service, Jobcentre Plus, along with safety equipment funded by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Parenting issues were the first priority. SSWT worked with the Pre-school Learning Alliance to support new pre-school and toddler groups in outlying villages. The programme linked with the National Childmind- ing Association and Sure Start Northumberland to establish introductory childminding courses. Once parents saw the courses could be delivered much more locally, and once transport and creche issues were resolved, they enthusiastically signed up. There are now 18 candidates working on level 2 childcare awards. Fathers were also specifically targeted, with projects involving them in ante-natal programmes and in children's learning.

SSWT worked with Northumber- land Care Trust to tackle speech and language therapy for pre-schoolers, including outreach with Northumber- land Music Service which visits pre-school settings and trains leaders how to use music as a communications tool.

A rural transport partnership should eventually result in a dial-and- ride scheme, but in the meantime SSWT has negotiated joint use of a minibus.

Given the transport problems, many families have discovered the possibilities of the internet, and SSWT operates a 'virtual forum' where parents participate via village hall computers or home computers.

Ms McCormick is confident that achieving their children's centre next year will ease issues of funding.

She says, 'We get really envious when we see bigger Sure Starts. I'm in the situation where currently I am manager, service deliverer, going out and arguing for strategic services, then coming back here, washing dishes and putting bins out! But now we have been recognised in these awards, we have a bit of clout behind us, and we get listened to a bit more.'

Sure Start Shadwell

Shadwell's Bangladeshi community has suffered from a very different type of isolation. Mothers within the community were found to reject play scheme sessions simply because they involved crossing the road.

But a remarkable birthday party scheme has changed all that, to the extent that extra attractions have to be laid on for uninvited but enthusiastic guests who gatecrash the events.

The neighbourhood in the borough of Tower Hamlets has a mostly Bangladeshi community, with low educational achievement and high unemployment. Large families are confined in poor housing. Traditional lifestyles compound this isolation. Mothers are reluctant to set foot outside with their children.

Fear of racism, nervousness at navigating the neighbourhood, distrust of other ethnic groups, and language difficulties are just some of the issues.

Sure Start Shadwell wanted to build on existing, if low, voluntary activity, working alongside the statutory sector, to attract parents and carers. They came up with the idea of holding birthday parties.

The plan was initially meant to address the Sure Start language measure on two-year-olds, but it went far beyond that. Every two months, the team sends personalised bilingual party invitations to every child with a second or third birthday during the previous and following month. The invitation tells families about what they can expect at the event - healthy party food, including halal sandwiches and veggy dips, a birthday cake, presents and an entertainer. The Sure Start team co-ordinates partners from around a dozen statutory and voluntary organisations - dentists, librarians, speech therapists, dieticians, health visitors or midwives, and those who can provide employment and training information.

Programme co-ordinator Meena Hoque says the success of events depends on respecting ethnic sensitivities, so that all families can feel comfortable about attending. For example, birthdays are not celebrated in some religious faiths, so invitations have to be carefully worded. The word 'cake' seems to appeal to all backgrounds.

'They are a lot of hard work,' she says. 'The whole team is involved. All leave is cancelled. We have bilingual staff to telephone families to check that they got their invitation, and to ask if they're coming.'

She pays tribute to the partner organisations who have embraced the concept so wholeheartedly. 'We have been very lucky. The partners never miss a party and just think it's a brilliant idea.'

The first party took place in October 2003. Around 40 families and at least 45 under-fours attend each event. Unlike other regular Sure Start activities which are attended mainly by Bangladeshi parents, the parties attract diverse ethnic backgrounds and entire families.

More than 1,000 families have now joined Sure Start Shadwell. Families may choose to join the library, gain advice on speech and language development, and are encouraged to come along to regular Stay-and-Play and Rhymetime sessions. These all help families to become part of the community.

The parties are often now oversubscribed. Parents who hear one is taking place simply turn up, regardless of whether they have an invitation. The team schedules Rhymetime or Baby Swim sessions to run at the same time, so uninvited families can enjoy an alternative event rather than being turned away.

Feedback suggests that the parties are an eye-opener for fathers who learn to engage much more with their children, and for mothers whose confidence grows enough to start attending Sure Start sessions. As for the children, 'I liked eating the cake' is one typical remark. NW

Winners round-up

* Other winners in Sure Start's Partners in Excellence awards include Sure Start Oswestry, Shropshire. On visits to travellers' sites, Playbus staff realised that books were geared towards New Travellers and caused unease among traditional Romany gypsies. These families' own stories became the basis for four books published with funds from the Education Action Zone and West Midlands Consortium Education Service for Travelling Children.

* Daddy Cool is the name of Sure Start Southampton's new service for fathers and male carers. Fathers' responses to a survey about father-friendly services led to establishing a Saturday breakfast club they can attend with their children.

* The Liverpool Early Years Transition Project, joint winner in category 1, helps under-fives with special educational needs or disabilities.

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