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Best Start in Life Event

Roundtable discussion 1 Left to right Nick Forbes, Dr Guy Pilkington, George Hosking L-R DR Guy PIlkington and Dr Eugene MilneNick Forbes and Coun Jane Streather


How can we give very young children the best start in life in Newcastle, when the government and councils are set on spending cuts, and schemes to support families are stopped?

That was the challenge laid before leaders in child development, education, public health and politics when they met in our Community Family Centre in Lemington on November 27th.

Sarah Cowling, CEO of HealthWORKS Newcastle, had organised a discussion called “The Best Start in Life In Newcastle – meeting the challenge in tough times.” The aim was to find new ways of helping very young children and their families by making the most of existing budgets which are increasingly stretched. She asked everyone to let go of the usual constraints of their existing jobs and try to think differently about how they could make the best of the current bad situation by working together in new ways.

The chairwoman was Polly Toynbee, the social commentator and Guardian columnist. The 14 participants included Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council, Prof. Chris Drinkwater, Chair of HealthWORKS, George Hosking, CEO Wave Trust, the Director of Public Health Eugene Milne, and GP and Newcastle CCG lead, Guy Pilkington, the Head of Hawthorne Primary School, Judy Cowgill plus senior representatives from Barnardos and Action for Children.

The group quickly agreed money spent ensuring a child aged from 0-5 is safe, secure, stimulated and well cared for produces a healthy, well adjusted adult who is more likely to find employment. Early years spending is a real investment for future generations. So it is crucial to support pregnant women and help carers nurture babies and infants during the critical first 24 months of development.

But this long term thinking is rare. Too many politicians and organisations make decisions as a reaction to present problems, this produces short term results and just stores up expensive problems for the future.

Life is getting tougher for families. Judy Cowgill, Headteacher at Hawthorne Primary, spelt out the consequences, with children arriving at school unable to sit quietly, concentrate, speak properly, and some are not even toilet trained. Hawthorne Primary work with children as young as Year 1 who have already been permanently excluded from other schools. Their future is bleak.

Nothing will change, she said, unless different agencies start working together earlier on.

All agreed that they had to put aside competition between organisations and look at a joint objective so they could all cooperate in helping young families give children ‘the best start in life’.

George Hosking gave examples of other councils like Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and Essex which have already done that. Their tactics are paying dividends. Spending on early intervention makes savings in other fields of public spending and that money can then be used to continue running services at a level above base line statutory duties.

Nick Forbes wants Newcastle City Council to be allowed to take a five year plan with its budget, instead of the existing one year system of accountability. That way, the council could take a long term approach to investing a tranche of the budget in child care.

With everyone saying that they should work together, prioritising investment in the early years and young families, why doesn’t it happen? Why are there not more effective partnerships? Various reasons were offered, including rigid bureaucracy, lack of integrated technology systems, and the overwhelming dominance of the NHS with its vast budget.

But Newcastle is small enough to develop good relationships between agencies and the council, and people in the community. More community hubs should be encouraged as meeting places where ideas can be exchanged and plans implemented.

Social capital, partnerships and community hubs were the buzzwords of the event. That means different agencies and councils getting together in sharing ideas and budgets and most importantly, including the community in decisions.

After 2 hours intense discussion, a common consensus was reached. Investment in the early years is vital. It helps family wellbeing and avoids problems arising in the future and saves money longterm. Every agency and council and parent must be committed to the concept and put their time and money where their mouths are.

The debate was a rare chance for leaders to air their concerns and priorities. Whether they take up the cause of cooperation for the early years – or not – will be seen in the next few months


L-R Dr Eugene Milne Director Public Health Newcastle, Sarah, Polly ToynbeeNick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City CouncilSarah, Polly Toynbee, Nick ForbesPolly Toynbee and Judy Cowgill

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