This government’s great achievement of SureStart can be even stronger with mutual principles, writes Frances Rehal

SureStart Millmead was established as a Community Mutual in April 2005. The programme started in 2001 and developed a model that values the views of parents and children. Parents were included in all aspects of the programme, from being on interview panels for the recruitment of the large team, to being members of the Management Board and being active on the Parent Focus Group.

There are many examples of how the Community Mutual has helped local residents. These include the provision of outreach home visits by community workers where parents are befriended and supported to access the many services available in the new purpose-built Children’s Centre. Childcare is provided free of charge to parents attending programmes in the centre. The Community Café provides a focus for local parents and children to get together on an informal basis to support each other and it also helps develop a sense of community in the area.

The Community Mutual has been able to support specific parents, such as for “Tina”, a 21-year-old with three children who had suffered many years of domestic abuse. Tina was very depressed and could not hold eye contact with staff when she first started attending the programme. Gradually, over the months and years, she accessed a range of education and support programmes.  She also reluctantly agreed to be a member of various recruitment panels. Over time she gained the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and set up home in another part of England. She keeps in contact with the programme and attributes her progress to how the programme continued to support her, staff were never judgmental; they worked alongside her and supported her in her decision making.

“Claire” moved to Millmead with her four children. She was frightened of living on the Millmead estate, especially of the local teenagers. She was depressed and feared going out. Her children did not mix with local children but stayed indoors where they fought and began to develop severe behavioural and speech problems. A Community Worker visited Claire and over time accompanied her to the Children’s Centre. The children were able to play with other children in the outdoor play facility. Over time their language and communication improved. Claire attended the Bring-and-Buy coffee morning and was able to purchase a range of children’s clothing and shoes for less than £5, which she greatly valued. Claire made use of the ‘One Step Ahead Programme’, which enabled parents to gain a greater understanding of child development and managing behaviour. Through this Claire was able to gain the confidence to go out with her children and talk with local teenagers.

Some local parents were recruited to work as community workers, which not only helped with job opportunities in an area of North Kent with very high unemployment rates but also enabled the establishment of vital links into the county.  Over time, the programme considered the models of governance available.  It was important to the programme to have a model that ensured the continued involvement of parents in the planning, delivery and evaluation of services.  It was agreed that we would incorporate as a Community Mutual as this model would enable the continued engagement of parents and the building-up of trust in a community that had a history of being “atomistic” and “on the edge”.

The programme emphasised the importance of working with parents and children.  Having local parents as part of the integrated team, we were able to use their knowledge and experience of the area to tailor the services that were needed in the community.  We were also able to develop a model of working where we expected change and improvements in local service delivery and outcomes for children and families.

The Community Mutual model has made a difference as it enables:

* A local programme to operate in ways that made sense and is meaningful to local residents.

* A greater emphasis on adult education programmes for parents who lack self-esteem and self-confidence.

* The continued delivery of better services in the local community.

* New models of working where staff, parents and children all work together to improve outcomes for children and families.

* The provision of tailored services for parents experiencing domestic violence, mental health problems and other difficulties.

* Membership of the Community Mutual to cost reductions in activities such as the summer family trip, use of the Community café and other events.

The Community Mutual has given Millmead residents ownership and involvement in the SureStart Children’s Centre. It has provided a very sceptical and cynical community that lacked confidence in traditional statutory service provision a new model of engagement that works and has helped to improve outcomes for children and families.

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