Plans by the Conservative Party to scrap Sure Start outreach workers are misguided and potentially damaging to hard-to-reach families, according to children's charity, Spurgeons.
Maria Miller, shadow minister for families, has pledged 4,200 extra health visitors at children's centres if the Tories win next year's general election. This however, will be funded by cutting back on Sure Start outreach workers.
"We welcome Maria Miller's strong commitment to Sure Start children’s centres but a key factor in their success has been investment in families among the bottom 20 per cent of wards in the UK," said Spurgeons' CEO Tim Jeffery.
"Our experience of running dozens of centres is that the most vulnerable families will not always seek out services. Through building long-term, trusting relationships, outreach workers are invariably the vital link to hard-to-reach parents. Children who had little hope experience top-quality services and make significant strides as a result."
Val Floy, director of quality at Spurgeons in Wolverhampton, believes that families perceive a real difference between statutory and non-statutory services.
"One of the strengths of Sure Start has been its ability to travel the middle ground and be a bridge between statutory universal services and families" she maintains. "If children’s centres become a statutory service, there is a real danger of losing the value of outreach workers."
Lee Richards, assistant director for Spurgeons in Birmingham, suggests outreach services are a key resource in the engagement of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
"It can take outreach workers days, weeks, perhaps months to gain the trust of families stigmatised and isolated by statutory services," said Lee. "It may involve workers transporting families to groups, staying with them and advocating on their behalf."
Mark Barkaway, assistant director for Spurgeons in Sussex, believes the role of outreach worker is both flexible and creative and allows for innovation with the most vulnerable communities.
"The Tory rationale for more health visitors is based on an assumption that they are a 'trusted brand' that parents have confidence in," he says - pointing out the considerable variations in the way outreach works on the ground.