Sure Start fails the most vulnerable

The introduction of Sure Start in deprived areas has not resulted in local families using more services and has had a negative impact on the most disadvantaged families, early findings suggest.

Research by the National Evaluation of Sure Start team on the first four years of the government’s flagship initiative for children under four and their families reveals that there is “very little evidence” that Sure Start local programmes (SSLPs) have achieved their goals of increasing service use or usefulness, or of helping families see their communities in a more favourable light.

Despite evidence of a “modest” impact on parenting skills in SSLP areas, many family outcomes appear unaffected and behaviour problems among children of teenage mums were actually worse than in comparison areas. Children from lone-parent families and workless households also scored significantly lower on verbal ability than their counterparts in non-SSLP areas.

The research concludes that, while relatively less disadvantaged families living in SSLP areas have benefited to some degree from the programmes’ presence, children from more disadvantaged families within these same communities appear to have been adversely affected.

It suggests that this may be because a higher uptake of services by relatively less disadvantaged families has left more disadvantaged families with less access than normal, or that the most disadvantaged families were “overwhelmed or turned off” by the support SSLPs offered.

While insisting that Sure Start was “one of the government’s biggest successes”, education secretary Ruth Kelly admitted there was still work to be done.

“Sure Start is a great success. But, as the report suggests, we must make sure that its benefits reach everyone who needs them, particularly the disadvantaged,” she said.

The findings were published alongside new practice guidance for Sure Start children’s centres, which places a greater emphasis on outreach work and home visiting in order to better reach the most disadvantaged families.

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