Better news for Sure Start as fresh study reveals benefits

The government’s flagship early intervention scheme has received a boost in the light of a new evaluation of its influence in deprived areas, reports Amy Taylor

Children’s services practitioners who leapt to Sure Start’s defence last year after critical findings from the programme’s national evaluation would have found much more positive news in a report last week.

The new study from the Sure Start evaluation team, which covers changes in the characteristics of local programme areas from 2000-1 to 2003-4, provides several examples of where they had an impact in disadvantaged areas, notably an increase in child protection activity.

In local programme areas there was a significant increase in enquires where children were thought to have suffered or were likely to suffer significant harm (section 47 enquiries), compared with only a small increase in England as a whole (see Child Welfare indicators). Also, there was a big rise in the rate of children placed on the child protection register but only a small increase in England (see Child Welfare indicators).

Pip O’Byrne, chair of children’s charity 4Children, says an increase in referrals to social services is to be expected because of Sure Start’s focus on early intervention with families experiencing problems.

“But over time it will tail off as you are reducing the number of children who are at risk of significant harm because you are trying to intervene earlier,” she adds.

The evaluation suggests the figures indicate the beneficial influence of joint working between agencies.

Although Barbara Hearn, director of policy and research at the National Children’s Bureau, welcomes the findings, she does not see them as evidence of earlier identification. “You can’t equate that with meaning that social services are identifying early,” she says, “because to leave a case until it needs a section 47 enquiry is too late.”

Hearn says she would like the research team to have instead gathered evidence on section 17 interventions because these cover cases of children in need. This would genuinely show if families were receiving early support, she argues.

Peter Liver, NSPCC director for the Midlands and West, says the increase in enquiries is probably a result of increased investment and professional involvement coupled with the impact on families of previous years of neglect in these areas.

He also says local authorities should use their experience of what has proven successful in Sure Start programmes to shape services as they develop children’s centres throughout their entire jurisdiction.

The number of section 47 enquiries rose faster the more area-based initiatives, such as the Children’s Fund, there were in local programme areas. The report also found far fewer emergency hospitalisations of children aged up to three in Sure Start areas in 2003-4 than three years earlier.

This may be a result of more joint working between health and other agencies, it adds, and Hearn says this shows that section 47 enquiries were not being carried out unnecessarily.

The study also echoes findings of the evaluation’s critical report last year that the most deprived local programme areas are not changing as much as those with lesser levels of deprivation or those with lower levels of intervention. Section 47 enquiries for children aged under five fell significantly in these areas.

But O’Byrne says the most deprived areas are the hardest to change, and says Sure Start needs more time to prove itself.

“People have to hold fire,” she says. “It needs a minimum of five years.”

Additional reading
Changes in the Characteristics of SSLP Areas between 2000/01 and 2003/04
Full analysis of the report

Further information
Sure Start
National Children’s Bureau

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