New messages from the Sure Start evaluation


Title: The Impact of Sure Start Local Progammes on Three Year Olds and Their Families
Authors: The National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) Team
Institutions: The NESS team is lead by Professor Edward Melhuish at the Institute for Study of Children, Families and Social Issues that is part of Birkbeck College, the University of London
Available: The research was published by the National Evaluation of Sure Start in March 2008 and is available in full and summary formats 


Sure Start has been at the centre of recent reforms of children’s services. It represented a large-scale attempt to apply the findings of international research, particularly from the US, that shows intensive family support provided for families could make a significant difference to outcomes in later childhood and adult life. It signalled an attempt by policymakers to integrate economic and social welfare policy in that Sure Start was based on a belief that if the UK was to remain competitive economically internationally it needed to reduce levels of social exclusion. It represented an attempt to promote both an economic but also moral case for family support.

When Sure Start was established in 1999 the government also expressed a commitment to basing the project on a robust and continually evolving knowledge base. It therefore funded one of the biggest evaluations ever in the UK.

In the early years Sure Start was based on local programmes, providing intensive ­support to families in deprived areas. However, the evaluation has followed the initiative as it transformed into children’s centres after 2005.

The overall aim of the evaluation has been to measure the way that Sure Start has changed services that have led to improvement in both the delivery of those services and the outcomes of children living in areas covered by Sure Start. This study is part of the impact study within the larger evaluation project. This focuses on the difference services delivered through Sure Start makes to children and their families’ lives.


We often warn that the research we are reviewing is of limited size and restricted timescales. The National Evaluation of Sure Start is, by contrast, impressive in both the size of the cohorts of families who have been studied and in its longitudinal nature. The methodology is a complex one and has to take account of substantial changes in policy, most notably the transition to children centres and the changed geographical and eligibility criteria.

The authors provide a set of caveats alongside their findings taking into account “the greater exposure of children and families to better organised and more effective services as Sure Start local programmes have matured over time”. In the impact study, researchers focused on more than 9,000 children living in areas covered by Sure Start at nine months and at three years. They were compared with a cohort of 1,879 children/families who participated in the first and second sweeps of the Millennium Cohort study, and who did not have Sure Start local programmes (SSLPs). The data were collected by specially trained field workers during home visits between spring 2005 and summer 2007.


As reported in Community Care earlier this month, the findings of this phase of the impact study were much more positive than were the case in the previous phase, the findings of which were published in 2005. This phase reported potentially disappointing outcomes. Although in the areas covered by the SSLPs being studied there were early signs of improved outcomes, for families in the most socially excluded circumstances child level outcomes seemed worse. This set of findings helped risk the stereotyping of SSLPs as dominated by the middle classes.

Although this was something of a caricature, there was an element of truth in it. For example, young parents and people with learning disabilities, mental health problems or substance misuse problems needed enhanced support to access services effectively and they did not always get it. Such enhanced routes into services were less likely to be intimidating than the traditional drop-in mechanism which was used widely in the early design of programmes. At the same time there was a lack of awareness of the contribution other (non-SSLP employed) workers, including social workers, could make to increased access for families in the community.

This phase of the study found, however, that outcomes for all children showed positive signs of improvement. It showed that parents of three-year-old children showed less negative parenting while providing their children with a better home learning environment. Three-year-olds in SSLP areas had better social development with higher levels of positive social behaviour and independent self-regulation than children in similar areas not having an SSLP.

The SSLPs’ positive impact on social behaviour appears to be a consequence of their effect on parenting (a SSLP influences parenting which influences the child). The three-year-olds in SSLP areas had higher immunisation rates and fewer accidental injuries than children in similar areas without an SSLP. Families in these areas used more child and family-related services than those living elsewhere.

The effects associated with SSLPs appeared to apply to all the resident population, rather then suggesting positive and negative effects for different sub-groups as detected in the earlier 2005 report.

James Blewett, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London


● Given the scale of the National Evaluation of Sure Start there have been a number of useful publications from the team. The lessons from all the parts of the study are drawn together in Belsky J, Barnes J, Melhuish E (eds), (2007), Sure Start Local Programmes: an overview of the implementation task

● Tunstill J, Meadows P, Allnock D, Akhurst S, Garbers C, (2005), Implementing Sure Start Local Programmes: an integrated overview of the first four years, DCSF

● Garbers C, Allnock D, Akhurst S and Tunstill J (2005), “Facilitating access to services for children and families: lessons from Sure Start Local Programmes”, Child & Family Social Work, Vol 11, No 4 Nov 2006 pp287-296.

● Oxford Blackwell Tunstill and Allnock (2007), The Contribution of Sure Start Local Programmes to the task of safeguarding children’s welfare, DCSF

● Allnock D, Akhurst S, Garbers C, Tunstill J, (2006), “Constructing and sustaining a Sure Start Local Programme Partnership lessons for future inter-agency collaborations”, Journal of Children’s Services Vol 1 No 3 November 2006 Brighton Pavilion pp29-40


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