Giving Blackpool's children a better start in life

Julie Morrison and Dee-Marie Talbott of Baby Steps Blackpool
Julie Morrison and Dee-Marie Talbott of Baby Steps Blackpool
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Overcoming the challenges faced by some of Blackpool’s most disadvantaged children is no easy task – but those in charge of trying say the work is paying off.

By shaking up the way the resort approaches childcare and development, the intention is to give babies growing up in the town a better start in life.

Blackpool is one of only five locations in the UK to receive Big Lottery Funding of £45m for this purpose.

The initiative, led by the NSPCC and building on the Baby Steps programme in place since 2012, is intended to have a significant impact on investment in services for babies up to the age of three, and enhance support for parents and young families.

Over 10 years from its introduction nationally in 2015, Better Start funding totalling more than £220m is being invested in giving every baby the best possible start in life.

The aim is to build on research that shows that early childhood can set the foundation for future learning, behaviour and health – and as the programme approaches its halfway point in 2020, NSPCC officials and parents are delighted at its success so far.

Blackpool-based family engagement officer Julie Morrison said: “For years, the standard ante-natal classes were focussed on mums – this programme looks at the bigger picture of family relationships and how everyone can work together to give baby the est possible start in life.”

“It starts during the pregnancy with a series of classes involving both partners and continues for months after baby is born.

“There are sessions all over Blackpool, arranged for the couples by their midwives and it is wonderful seeing parents come back with their babies and seeing the extra confidence the sessions have brought about in them.”

Julie is one of nine family engagement officers involved in the scheme at nine locations in Blackpool.

She added: “The feedback has been wonderful, from grandparents as well as parents and it’s lovely to see that it is making a notable difference.”

Better Start aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life.

Among the specific objectives of the programme are:

l to improve babies’ diet and nutrition;

l to support healthy physical development and protect against illness in later life;

l to develop social and emotional skills, helping them build positive relationships and cope with difficult situations;

l to develop language and communication skills; and

l to help them engage with the world around them.

The Gazette has previously reported that just over a quarter of reception-age schoolchildren are overweight, compared to just over a fifth nationally.

Around one in three children are also living in poverty – with the resort’s 32.1 per cent way above the national average of 20.1.

Levels of child poverty have risen steadily since 2006 and, in 2014, it rose by 2.6 six per cent in Blackpool, compared to 1.5 per cent across England.

Youngsters from poorer backgrounds lag behind at all stages of education, while poverty is also linked to a higher risk of both illness and premature death.

They are twice as likely to live in bad housing, which can affect physical and mental health, and, although they are more likely to have a play area locally, they are often worse off – depriving children of exercise.

The resort also has one of the highest rates of looked-after children in the country compared to other local authorities, the highest rate nationally for hospital admissions due to alcohol abuse, and recently topped a league of shame for heroin and morphine deaths.

One parent said of her experience with Baby Steps and Better Start: “You can try and find out information online but I don’t think there is any substitute for being able to sit in a room and ask the questions you need answered, to have that camaraderie.

“The groups were not over large, so you could sit and have a giggle, they felt more personal and I think we both got more out of it that way.”

Sherry Malik, the NSPCC’s director of children’s services said: “We recognise that parenthood can be difficult for new mums and dads, sometimes because of their personal circumstances or past experiences.

“We also know that babies born into families going through difficult times are at a higher risk of abuse and neglect.

“The NSPCC’s Baby Steps programme has shown, both in Blackpool and around the UK, that with the right support at the right time parents can feel empowered to create a happy and stable home environment for their babies.

“Parents tell us they have a better understanding of what to expect and a greater ability to prepare for the changes that will happen when their baby arrives.”