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The Guardian view on investing in youth: bring back Sure Start and make it for teens too | Editorial

The Guardian view on investing in youth: bring back Sure Start and make it for teens too | Editorial
The Guardian view on investing in youth: bring back Sure Start and make it for teens too | Editorial


Sir Keir Starmer’s recent suggestion that the last Labour government’s Sure Start programme will be the model for his Labour administration reveals that new ideas can be found in old ones. Sir Keir was responding to serious youth violence in a thoughtful way. A recent survey suggested that almost half of children and young people were victims of, or witness to, violence, with a similar number reporting that the fear of violence impacted on their daily lives. While the carrying and use of weapons by a small minority is frightening – above all for their families – Labour is right to say a ban on knives is needed, but would be insufficient to tackle the wider societal malaise afflicting teenagers.

Neither are tougher sentences a solution, particularly given prisons’ poor record on training and rehabilitating offenders. The longer-term trend is concerning, particularly with regard to young people. While the number of knife offences committed by adults rose by 15% in the decade to 2023, the equivalent figure for the 10-17 age group was 21%. Underlying Sir Keir’s plans is the right thinking: that investment in young people is required for better, more productive communities.

Labour seems to have taken its inspiration from England’s former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield. That’s no bad thing. Ms Longfield suggested the Sure Start programme was an excellent example to draw on for a policy aimed at teenagers. Sure Start was designed to be a cost-effective and socially just way to ensure that children had the best possible start in life. Its community-based “before and after school” ethos made sense for under-fives, and it makes sense for adolescents too. Crucially, it aimed to help all, not just the poorest.

This week, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in England warned of the devastating impact of austerity, poverty and the pandemic on the young. The association pointed out that the government’s much-vaunted attempt to revive Sure Start with “family hubs” has been limited to just 75 councils and has only developed “baby-centred services”. Yet its report, Childhood Matters, noted with concern that “teenagers are now the fastest growing cohort of children in care, in part due to the criminal exploitation of young people by unscrupulous adults, rising homelessness, and growing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children”. This at a time when many council-backed services have been decimated by cuts and are in desperate need of investment.

Teenagers’ needs aside from schooling require policy focus. Budget pressures have seen neighbourhood youth services hollowed out, leaving a dearth of safe spaces for young people to go and be with friends. Concerns about the safety of young people in their communities, and online, are growing – particularly in relation to social media algorithms that amplify misogynistic content.

Labour’s £100m promised so far for new youth hubs, which will focus on crime prevention and support, is not enough. Dedicated funding will also be needed to deal with the record number of children seeking help with their mental health and the record number missing education. Sir Keir’s commitment to start rebuilding youth work infrastructure, in which relationships with trusted adults are an essential component, is welcome. The original Sure Start was designed to set the youngest children up for the rest of childhood. An equivalent offer to teenagers should aim to equip them for adult life.



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