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Ethnic minority participation in an East Midlands Sure Start.


This paper draws on evidence from a local Sure Start evaluation of low participation rates among ethnic minority families. It reflects national concerns regarding the low use of children's services among ethnic minority families. The evaluation aimed to improve understanding of the factors that affect families' participation in Sure Start services. A sample of 34 ethnic minority parents, six Sure Start outreach workers and four community workers from allied local agencies were interviewed in 2006. The interviews revealed an unexpected disparity between the views of the majority of the workers and those of local, Sure Start-eligible parents. The workers felt that the main factor discouraging participation was too little focus on multiculturalism. However, parents focused on practical barriers, concerns around age and the perceived indiscipline of some Sure Start families. Parents generally saw their own ethnic culture as being compatible with Sure Start values. While most workers viewed minority communities as having homogeneous needs, parents discussed the heterogeneity of 'communities.' Ethnicity and cultural factors do not have a simple or straightforward impact on people's decisions over whether to access Sure Start services.

Key words

Children's services, Sure Start, ethnicity, participation


Sure Start was established as a key strand in a range of policies designed to eliminate child poverty. (1) It offered early interventions in health care, education, play facilities and nurseries to families with children aged under four in the 500 most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. There was particular concern with the engagement of ethnic minority families, as these communities experience rates of poverty that are disproportionately high. (2)

The impact of policies that promote multiculturalism has been the subject of much recent debate. (3,4) Concerns have been expressed about the efficacy of multiculturalism, the importance of factors such as the ethnicity of staff, (5) the impact of separate services for different ethnic groups and over funding for translation services in welfare agencies. (6) The picture emerging from the literature on ethnic minority use of family services is rather complex. There is high use of some childcare services among black Caribbean families, particularly in deprived areas. (5) Similarly, there is frequently greater use made of family centres by black families than by the general population. (7) Department of Health research also indicates high access rates for children's medical services among Pakistani and Indian families. (8) However, several studies have identified the importance of practical barriers against participation among ethnic minority families, particularly those associated with poverty such as the cost of child care or a lack of transport. (9,10,5) Several studies acknowledge the preference of many families, particularly Asian, for not using formal child care due to an importance placed on traditional gender roles and the perceived poor quality of services. (9,11,12) Some of these concerns relate to perceived indiscipline among Western children. (11,12) Although cultural issues are often given prominence by researchers and government policy, (10,11) they feature less prominently among parents' criteria for adequate services. (5,11) There is debate as to how professionals should respond to cultural concerns in designing services (9,13) or how useful the concept of cultural difference is in explaining differential access to services. (13) Bell et al highlight the differences between parents and experts on this issue, with the former showing less concern for multiculturalism than the latter. (2) The impact of staff ethnicity is not straightforward either. (2,5,12) Its importance may depend on the type of community, being of more concern to very traditional or religious groups, (9) and on whether the service is perceived to be of a personal and intrusive nature. (7,12,14)

There is little evidence from Sure Start local and national evaluations about ethnic minority participation rates. (15) This is partly due to the lack of monitoring data that has been collected, making quantitative assertions difficult. (15) Similarly, the effectiveness of different measures for addressing ethnic minority use of services is unclear. The national evaluation (15) on ethnic minority use of Sure Start makes few references to specific outcomes. While it places much emphasis on the importance of processes that promote diversity and multiculturalism as opposed to 'colour-blind' (piii) approaches, it offers little evidence about the relative effectiveness of these approaches. Indeed, some parents' views in this report refer to the attraction of Sure Start as being a place where parents 'don't need to think about the colour of our skin' (p32). The report also acknowledges other factors that discourage participation, such as the inflexibility of services, issues of 'class' (p4) and perceived indiscipline of Western children. However, these issues are not explored in detail.

Study background

This study was commissioned as part of the local evaluation of an inner city Sure Start in the East Midlands, in response to the staff 's perception that there was a low take-up of services among ethnic minority families. The locality has a large and diverse ethnic minority population--12% black African and Caribbean, 4% Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian, 6% mixed race, and 2% describing themselves as 'other', 'other black' or 'other mixed'. (16) There is a growing number of mixed race children in the locality, who are mainly black Caribbean and white. (16) The 2001 census (17) records unemployment levels at more than twice the national average, and 42% of the population as having no qualifications compared to 29% nationally. In addition, the area suffers from a negative image with respect to drugs, violence and gangs, associated particularly with black and mixed race young people.

The Sure Start programme had attempted to address ethnic minority participation rates through a multicultural approach that included increasing the number of ethnic minority outreach workers, increasing the amount of ethnically-specific resources (including toys) and designing services exclusive to ethnic minority families, such as 'lifestyle coaching' for mixed race families that included black history and practical matters such as black skincare. This approach reflected government guidance, which stresses the importance of diversity and difference. (2) However, it did not affect engagement and the targeted services ceased to run as no parents attended.

The evaluation was designed to improve the programme's understanding of the factors that influenced whether or not ethnic minority parents accessed Sure Start and to discover any factors particular to specific ethnic minority communities. It was intended to answer the following questions:

* What influenced parents' decisions about whether to access Sure Start?

* What were staff and parents' views on the factors that inhibit parents from participating?

* How was Sure Start perceived within their communities?


A loosely structured, qualitative design was chosen in order to address these questions in ways that were sensitive to the respondents' particular circumstances, and to allow expression of their own interpretations and experiences of the social world. (18)


A sample of local parents and staff was selected purposively in order to gain a broad range of respondents from diverse communities. The staff and community workers were selected on the basis of their involvement with ethnic minority families. The sample comprised all six Sure Start outreach workers plus four workers from local community organisations who worked specifically with ethnic minority families. Nine of these respondents were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

A sample of 34 ethnic minority parents was selected from the local Sure Start database. An attempt was made to reflect the ethnic make-up of the community, but difficulties with contacting parents meant that this was not possible. In addition, the monitoring data regarding ethnic minority participation were not accurate or complete, as appears to be the case with many Sure Start local programmes. (15) Parents with varying levels of involvement with Sure Start were selected--13 had never used Sure Start, seven had used it on four or fewer occasions and had subsequently ceased attending, and 14 were or had been regular users (see Table 1).

Ethical considerations

The work was undertaken as part of the local Sure Start evaluation and ethical approval was sought from the Sure Start Partnership Board. All the parents had given their consent to participate in evaluation when they registered for Sure Start. Respondents were contacted by letter and telephone to take part. Prior to interviews, all respondents were given an explanation of the nature and purpose of the study, questions that it would address and expected outputs. They were advised that their responses would be confidential, that they would remain anonymous, that they had the right to withdraw from the study at any time and that they could refuse to answer any question.

Data collection and analysis

Face-to-face interviews were conducted with workers, which were recorded and transcribed verbatim. They lasted between one and one-and-a-half hours. It was not possible to arrange for the researcher to be accompanied when attending the homes of parents, as recommended by the university's ethical guidelines, and so interviews with them were by telephone. These lasted between 15 minutes and one hour. These were recorded and transcribed verbatim where possible, otherwise contemporaneous notes were taken and written up immediately afterward. The interviews were based on broad themes identified in the literature and previous local evaluations. These included the ethnicity of staff, the appropriateness of services, and cultural and practical barriers to participation. Where relevant, parents were also asked about their own experiences of Sure Start.

The data were provisionally categorised according to topics derived from existing literature that had informed the interview guides. (19) The list of categories was subsequently broadened in response to the data generated. The coded data were assigned to separate headings and examined for patterns, contrasts and irregularities. Core themes were then identified.


Practical barriers

The majority of parents who had not used Sure Start cited practical reasons, such as transport problems, exacerbated by having older, school-aged children. Another issue raised by many parents was the lack of flexibility in childcare services, particularly with regard to available days and times. A lack of transport has been cited by other Sure Start local evaluations, (20, 21) and it has been noted that practical problems associated with deprivation are more likely to affect ethnic minority families. (5) However, practical issues were only raised by one of the workers.

Perceptions of multiculturalism

The majority of workers believed that the low ethnic minority participation rates were related to 'cultural issues', a paucity of 'ethnic resources' and the programme's lack of concern with multiculturalism:

Sure Start is not seen to be multicultural, the services ... aren't tailored to the community ... like with food at events, there weren't any samosas or salt fish. (Female worker)

Workers felt that a lack of minority ethnic Sure Start staff constituted a further barrier: There aren't enough BME staff ... that's what these kids need to make them feel it's for them. (Male worker)

However, parents who had not attended Sure Start did not cite culture or ethnicity as a reason for not using it, and those who had used Sure Start expressed high levels of satisfaction, stating that it 'couldn't do more' to make all parents feel included:

It's not really about my culture or my heritage ... With the little ones you just need to know they're well cared for. (Black African mother)

Sure Start was seen as being 'for the family', and this was perceived to transcend cultural difference. Indeed, Pakistani parents stated that too much concern with multiculturalism could lead to stereotyping and damage the image of minority communities:

It is not going into a church or celebrating Christmas ... that puts off Muslim people ... but when these things get said, it causes a lot of mistrust ... [Sure Start people] only look at the extreme view of Islam and not at the normal Muslims. (Pakistani mother)

Parents from various ethnic groups regarded culturally reflective services as being potentially tokenistic. One respondent referred to a 'steel bands and saris' approach to service delivery. Some Pakistani respondents believed that part of Sure Start's role should be to effect change in, rather than attempt to reproduce or reflect, certain aspects of their original culture:

In Pakistan, it's fine to stay at home with the family ... But now you're living here ... Sure Start should come out to the community to challenge some of the old-fashioned attitudes. (Pakistani mother)

Similarly, none of the parents considered staff ethnicity to be important with regard to Sure Start's accessibility:

I don't look at the colour of people's skin--there are two white girls looking after [my son]. That'd be racism if I said I want him just to go to black people. (Black Caribbean mother)

Ethnic identities and participation

Many parents from all ethnic groups recognised a tendency for workers to homogenise ethnic minorities by advocating the inclusion of a unitary 'black culture' into services, and by speaking of undifferentiated needs of 'black families'. Parents emphasised internal differences and regarded ethnic identity to be highly fragmented:

The problem is in asking what 'black' people want ... There is no such thing as 'black' people ... people from different parts of Africa are very different ... the Jamaican way of living is way off my way of living ... you cannot find something that will suit all these different people and say it is ... 'black' culture. (Black African mother)

Some parents identified themselves according to criteria other than ethnicity, and social class was implicit as a factor that could override ethnic identity. Class and issues of discipline could also affect views of Sure Start. This concern was closely related to perceptions of generational differences, which some saw as a more fundamental social division than ethnicity:

I don't want my child to mix with people like that ... I don't want my child to be influenced by bad behaviour ... some of the parents haven't had any discipline ... especially the younger parents. (Black Caribbean mother)

A number of workers and parents, the majority of whom were black Caribbean and mixed race (white/Caribbean), expressed concern about 'urban', 'gangsta' or 'hip hop' culture. This was perceived to condone drugs, guns and violence, and to lack positive values. Some stated that its effects were most pronounced among some black Caribbean and mixed race families, whose presence at Sure Start was reported to be a barrier against the participation of more culturally conservative black parents:

I don't want to be around these younger mums ... who see having a mixed race child as a fashion accessory ... saying 'when [my son] grows up ... he's gonna be a gangsta. (Black Caribbean mother)

Other respondents felt that the more serious problem was rather with these young families' own low levels of participation. These families were seen as highly antiestablishment and highly disengaged from mainstream services:

It's all about MTV, hip hop and being the 'big man'. [These] parents ... aren't going to turn up at a toddler group whatever you do--they're not interested. (Mixed race, white/Caribbean mother)

Despite advocating cultural diversity, workers did not feel that Sure Start should try to accommodate this 'urban' culture in an attempt to engage its proponents. Indeed, one worker even denied that it could be considered to be a culture, saying that there is 'no such thing as an urban culture.' He described this way of life as wholly 'negative and destructive.'


The dichotomy between parents and workers regarding the impact of ethnicity on participation reflects the ambivalence concerning ethnic minority use of services. Blakemore (22) states that there can be a tendency to over-problematise ethnicity, and this appeared to be the case with a number of the workers. The danger in 'ethnicising' problems is that it 'may lead one to overlook important personal difficulties' (23) (p175). Therefore, it is important that services do not lose sight of the types of practical barrier that were raised by the parents and are common to families of all ethnicities. (20,21) Too much focus on ethnicity as an identity (24) and ethnically-targeted services could be divisive and ineffective if parents do not actually identify in the ways service providers presume that they do. This lack of identification could have contributed toward the failure of the targeted services that were attempted in this programme. Parents did not raise the kind of cultural issues that these services addressed, such as black history, as being considered when deciding whether to access Sure Start.

While the national evaluation (15) stresses the importance of ethnically-specific resources and targeted services, it offers little evidence of the effect these have on parents' likelihood of using Sure Start. Workers run the risk of reifying perceived identities and of essentialising ethnic minorities. (25) But as Banks (26) states: 'Like it or not, a child's culture is essentially what they have lived and known, and not what a childcare worker with an abstract political ideal would wish for them' (p159).

Parents revealed a more complex picture of identity and culture. The variations they discussed illustrate the importance of services such as Sure Start being able to treat each person as an individual, and not as examples of their particular ethnic group.

The unease surrounding respondents' perceptions of the rise of 'gangsta' culture within the locality draws attention to the difficulties faced by services that attempt to be culturally inclusive. The fragmentation of cultures that parents identified could create limits to inclusiveness. The findings emphasise that differences between younger and older parents and perceptions of class may be at least as problematic as ethnicity with regard to accessing services. Furthermore, if respondents' perceptions about the anti-establishment nature of the 'gangsta' culture of the most disengaged families are accurate, then existing methods of ensuring 'cultural appropriateness'--such as promoting traditional foods and religious festivals--are unlikely to be effective in reaching out to them. Workers' and parents' negative attitudes toward 'urban' culture could affect young families' perceptions of and likelihood of accessing Sure Start services. Yet it cannot easily embrace the values of 'urban culture' when it is regarded as incorporating elements such as violence, misogyny and homophobia.

The challenge for service providers is in how they can relate to families who might identify with this type of culture, while at the same time being seen to maintain a positive ethos and value system in order to not alienate more conservative parents.


The workers regarded a concern with diversity to be fundamentally important to ethnic minority participation. However, they tended to homogenise different ethnic groups and their presumed needs. Workers felt that participation should be addressed through a greater focus on multiculturalism, the ethnic matching of staff and more targeted services.

Conversely, parents felt that these concerns were not central to decisions about whether or not ethnic minority families decided to access Sure Start. Indeed, they regarded too much focus on multiculturalism as encouraging stereotyping and tokenism. Similarly, they saw Sure Start's attempts at being culturally reflective as involving the homogenisation of ethnic groups. Some Pakistani parents thought Sure Start should be effecting changes in aspects of their original cultures that were seen as inappropriate in this country.

Reflecting findings from evaluations conducted with general Sure Start populations, the parents felt that Sure Start could best address participation by focusing on practical matters, such as offering transport to services and increasing their flexibility.

Despite shared feelings of unease regarding perceptions of 'gangsta' culture, opinions differed as to how it affected participation in Sure Start and how it should be addressed. Perceptions of this phenomenon seemed to affect parents' self-identities, with other factors such as their age, social class or conservatism appearing to override their ethnicity. This may be partly in response to the circumstances of this locality and its negative reputation, both in the surrounding area and in the media. These findings, which of course cannot be generalised beyond this area, highlight the importance of taking local factors and opinions into account when addressing ethnic minority participation.

Key points

* Patterns of family service use by ethnic minorities are complex, but there are concerns about their degree of engagement with the Sure Start programme

* Government guidance stresses a multicultural approach, focusing on numbers of minority ethnic workers, ethnically-specific resources and targeted services

* An emphasis on cultural barriers to participation is not always shared by parents, who often cite practical barriers and concerns over quality as most important

* Core themes to emerge from interviews with parents and workers in one Sure Start area were practical barriers inhibiting participation, differing perceptions of multiculturalism, and the heterogeneity of ethnic 'communities' and importance of ethnicity in respondents' identities

* While these findings cannot be generalised, they highlight the importance of taking local factors and opinions into account when addressing ethnic minority participation


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Mark Avis MSc, BA, RN, RNT, CertEd

Head of school, School of Nursing,

University of Nottingham

Sarah Chaudhary MA, LLB

Research associate, School of Nursing,

University of Nottingham
Table 1. Participants' use of Sure Start by ethnicity

Ethnicity Used extensively Used rarely Never used Total

Pakistani 2 2 2 6
Pakistani/white 1 0 0 1
African 4 3 5 12
Caribbean 2 2 2 6
Caribbean/white 5 0 2 7
African/white 0 0 2 2
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Title Annotation:PROFESSIONAL
Author:Avis, Mark; Chaudhary, Sarah
Publication:Community Practitioner
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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