Marie Lavelle



Sure Start Children’s Centres and their predecessors, the Sure Start Local Programmes, were central to New Labour’s drive to reduce social exclusion through early intervention in the lives of families with young children. Where previous research predominantly focused on the impact and effectiveness of programme delivery, there has also been a great deal of emphasis on those families who do not use these services. However, in attempting to understand why parents do not use Children’s Centres, the approach has been one that placed non-participation experiences away from Centres, distanced and unrelated. This thesis presents a sociological analysis of two Children’s Centres where the institutional processes and practices that shape what these spaces mean are explored in depth. In exploring some of the day to day interactions and practices, this thesis challenges some of the taken for granted assumptions, in order to create a meaningful space for dialogue. Using an ethnographic methodology two Centres were studied to explore how Children’s Centres were perceived by those who used them, those who work in them and those who walked past them. The fieldwork was conducted over an eighteen month period and involved a multitude of methods; participation and observation in Centre activities, focus groups with staff, and parents and interviews with parents within and outside Centres. I also had many ‘conversations with a purpose’ with parents in community toddler groups and other spaces that parents, predominantly mothers occupy with their young children. What emerged was that an understanding of these spaces is complex and whilst invaluable to a small number of very regular users they are also insignificant to others. For other users the plurality of meaning reflects the many ways that these spaces are occupied by parents and children. Points of tension were apparent as parents made these spaces their own, sometimes in conflict with how they ‘ought’ to be used. The thesis uses the work of Foucault to explore how power relations are played out within the Centres and the way that government operates at a distance. From this perspective it is clear that Children’s Centres are political spaces, where they have become ‘depoliticised’ as part of the disciplinary processes of the ‘conduct of conduct’. They are spaces where ‘technologies of government’ are employed in practice and where the drive to evidence outcomes focuses practitioners’ attention on end results. As a result the processes, the means to achieving those results, can go unexamined.

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