Two Islingtons exist side by side within our small borough. An Islington of wealth, great shops, restaurants and thriving businesses and an Islington where almost half our children grow up in poverty. Where the most affluent residents can expect to live up to ten years longer than the least well off.
My priority as Leader of the Council and Islington resident is to reduce that inequality and create a fairer borough. It’s a goal made even more challenging by the sheer scale of government cuts. As one of the poorest London boroughs we’ve been hit hard by the loss of over £40 million in the next year alone. That’s money that provided real jobs and real services that many of our most vulnerable residents rely on. We can’t take it away without the impact being felt, but we can ensure our most disadvantaged children and families aren’t the hardest hit.
As a mother of two myself, I know that those early years make the biggest difference to the path our children set out on. A fairer Islington means ensuring all our children, whatever postcode they grow up in, can access the opportunities that give them the best start in life.
Visit any of our 16 Sure Start Children’s Centres and you’ll see kids of all backgrounds playing and learning together. You’ll see bilingual outreach staff working with community organisations to reach our Turkish, Somali and Bengali families; thriving parenting programmes engaging new dads; speech and language therapists helping our youngest children develop literacy skills so they’re ready for school and beyond. We’ve made full use of the national pilot offering free places to economically disadvantaged 2 year olds, with all 170 places continuously filled, and we’re now seeing more children achieve a good standard of development by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage than ever before. That’s why, unlike many local authorities across the country, we’ll be keeping all our children’s centres open despite these government cuts.
In a borough where green space is precious and rare, and where the majority of our children don’t have gardens, investing in play is vital. It’s fun but it’s much more than that – play has a massive impact on social, physical and emotional well being . If you consider that our children spend only a quarter of their time in schools, it’s easy to see how important those out of school hours are. We’re not cutting any adventure play funding over the coming year and play, youth and leisure opportunities will remain one of our priorities in future years.
A fairer Islington also means supporting parents. The overwhelming majority of our children living in poverty are growing up in households where no adult works. Through our children’s centres ‘Working for Parents’ project and our six parent champions we’re trying to tackle this. Our method isn’t the stick of benefit reduction but the support of advice to improve skills and confidence, find the right affordable childcare or work experience. All our champions are parents themselves and know that this doesn’t happen overnight. Our investment in these initiatives is for the long term.
One of my proudest achievements was introducing universal free school meals for all nursery and primary school children, ensuring all our kids get at least one healthy nutritious meal each day and providing that extra support for low income parents. Since its introduction we’ve seen school meal take up increase from 60% to 80%, an increase that includes 1,000 children from our poorest families. There’s no stigma to claiming it because everyone can, and there’s a wealth of evidence that a balanced diet has a positive impact not just on health but on behaviour, concentration and performance. The increased take up has also brought in over £400,000 in additional funding – that’s money we can put back into our schools for the benefit of all our children.
There is still much to be done. But I firmly believe that tackling inequality starts with ensuring all our children get the best start in life. That is my priority and my challenge.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society