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Happy Birthday!

This week we are celebrating a very important 10th birthday, a milestone of great significance. I remember reaching 10 myself, feeling the importance of that important second digit. 10 really is quite grown up. But the birthday we’re celebrating isn’t one of our Year 6 pupils, it’s that of our wonderful Family Centre.

The Family Centre began its life under the Sure Start initiative, the flagship policy of the Blair government, with the aim to give children the best possible start in life through childcare, early education, health and family support. Following the closure of the Health Centre on Church Road, Highgate Primary was identified as a potential site, and plans were developed for a brand-new building in which to deliver a range of community services to families with young children.

After several years of meetings, architectural plans were agreed, funding was in place and contractors moved in to demolish the 1930’s-built ‘Sumner Centre’, a rather dilapidated but much-loved building used by the PSA and after-school club. Construction was held up when a rather large air-raid shelter was discovered. Nobody knew of its existence, although two of our dinner ladies later revealed they had used it when they were pupils.

So, at a cost of nearly half a million pounds, the Sure Start Children’s Centre at Highgate Primary was finally opened, and it was amazing. Led by our Deputy Headteacher at the time, Anthony David, run by Kate Imeson and Katherine Nashnush and with education support from Kim Slater, the Children’s Centre coordinated midwifery, health visitors, and a breastfeeding team; it put on stay-and-play sessions for babies and toddlers, ran sessions for Citizen’s Advice and soon became established as an incredibly valuable community resource that was having a significant and positive impact on the lives of families with young children.

A little over a year later and I was called to a meeting with officers of the local authority. The Cameron government had removed the ring-fence around Sure Start funding and due to pressures on local authority funding, the centre was earmarked for closure.

The campaign we ran to protect the centre was a thing of beauty. A public meeting in a packed school hall showed the strength of feeling in the community. Expecting a handful of people, the council’s Member for Children was met by several hundred highly articulate and rather angry centre users, and left rather shell-shocked. The school’s appeal to Haringey’s ‘Overview and Scrutiny Committee’ saw the decision to close our Children’s Centre overturned.

The outcome was a stay-of-execution in which the school was given, funnily enough, nine months funding to explore alternative models to keep the Children’s Centre running. This was an exciting time and included a private meeting arranged by our local MP, Lynne Featherstone, with the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The fact that Kate got him to kneel on the floor of his rather large office, to look at photographs of baby weighing, breastfeeding mothers and children delighting in messy play, was probably influential in his offer of personal support for our plight.

The Children’s Centre was withdrawn from the Sure Start Programme and renamed The Highgate Primary Family Centre, and ten years later we’re still here! Funding comes from a range of alternative sources including paid-for services, weekend and evening lettings, Night Owls and Whittington Health – topped up by donations and fundraising.

So many of our children at school have used the family centre and their parents will often refer to it as a life-saver, quite literally in a few cases. The range of services, the love and care that it provides and the sense of community it engenders are a vital part of our school and, I believe, do help to give our children the best start in life. It is not a surprise to me that a recent study conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded that Sure Start reduced the numbers of people taken to hospital, and saved millions of pounds for the National Health Service.

This week I noticed a two-year old dragging his mum across the playground to the Family Centre. Despite alternative plans for the day, there was no way he was missing out on Kate McAulay’s ‘Playing Together’ and Hilla’s ‘Shake Wiggle and Sing’!

To mark our 10 years as a thriving centre, we’ll be celebrating with 10 acts of random kindness throughout the year, which began yesterday with bouquets of flowers for our health visitors and midwives. Thank you to everyone who’s supported our centre – it really is an incredible resource.