If it is spending cuts you want, Sure Start should be on the list
Curtailing the £5bn budget for early childhood intervention services could save money and liberate families from the state, writes Michael Fitzpatrick
Once the “jewel in New Labour’s policy crown”, Sure Start is now also cherished by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (as the NHS was once claimed by Margaret Thatcher to be “safe in Tory hands”). While drastic cuts are promised throughout the public sector, ministers declare their determination to secure the core services of the Sure Start programme and the associated children’s centres. They have promised to boost the number of health visitors working in the scheme by more than 4,000.
The resilience of Sure Start is even more remarkable given that it was launched with a commitment to evidence-based policy: it would proceed on the basis of research showing what works in terms of improving outcomes for children. Yet Sure Start has proved impervious to the results of several studies confirming its failure to achieve even the highly arbitrary targets by which its success was measured. The most recent – a study commissioned by the Treasury and carried out by the Office of National Statistics and published last month – found that “large sample results indicate that on average attending early-years education had no impact on any of our outcome measures”.
The previous government also ignored the result of the National Evaluation of Sure Start (at a cost of £20m). This forced Professor Sir Michael Rutter, one of its leading advisers, to admit: “I doubt that the government has the slightest interest in research evidence when dealing with its own policies.”
Sure Start survives, in the face of public sector austerity and despite the evidence of its failure, because it is popular with both politicians and parents.
Politicians like Sure Start because it shifts the blame for poverty from society to parents, The particular contribution of Labour was to make the traditional conservative prejudices that working class parents are ignorant and dysfunctional respectable in liberal circles.
Tony Blair and his colleagues successfully promoted the dubious proposition that major social problems (“antisocial behaviour”, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational performance) are determined largely by early childhood experience. This fatalistic view was linked in the Sure Start policy with the wishful thinking that early intervention in parenting could improve outcomes – and reduce the costs to society of deviant behaviour.
Parents like Sure Start because, in addition to providing childcare, it appears to respond to the high levels of anxiety and insecurity surrounding contemporary parenting. The vogue for formal instruction in parenting popularised by successful television programmes and numerous popular books and internet sites means that government initiatives in this area are more likely to be welcomed than regarded as interfering.
The problem is that subjecting families to professional intervention in intimate areas of childcare and child-raising is destined to compound the crisis of parental confidence. The combination of motivational psychology and new age therapy that makes up the parenting curriculum installs a government supernanny in every household and inevitably further undermines parental authority.
Cutting Sure Start would not only save money for more socially useful projects, it would liberate parents and children from authoritarian state intervention in family life.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in Hackney, east London, and author of Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, published by Routledge