Findings from the national evaluation of Sure Start published last week made deflating reading for many and have sparked defences of the programme from a number of quarters.
With praise being heaped on Sure Start, few could have predicted the evaluation’s most controversial finding that some of the most disadvantaged families could be adversely affected by living in a programme area.
The study found that three-year-olds born to teenage mothers scored lower in verbal ability and social competence and higher on behaviour problems than their counterparts in non-Sure Start areas. It also found that three-year-olds whose mothers are lone parents or who lived in workless households scored lower in verbal ability.
A further adverse effect was mothers of three-year-olds rating the area in which they lived less favourably than their counterparts in non-Sure Start areas.
However researchers found that families who were still disadvantaged but less so may benefit from living in a Sure Start area. It concludes that the use of services by the relatively less disadvantaged may have left the most disadvantaged with less access to services than if they lived in a community without the programme.
Overall the study found little evidence that Sure Start local programmes achieved their goals of increasing service use and/or service usefulness or of enhancing families’ impressions of their communities.
Rita Sutton, director of regional operations at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, an educational charity which manages some local programmes and is involved in a number of others, said the children and families they work with are benefiting from Sure Start and that her organisation is surprised by the report.
She added that Sure Start’s combination of care, education and play is a good formula. It also gives parents the chance to give each other advice.
“Community pre-schools (play groups) shown that families can learn from each other,” she said.
From April 2006, money for Sure Start local programmes will begin to be channelled through local authorities rather than given directly to the programmes. By April 2008, all programmes will be funded in this way.
Sutton says the voluntary sector is particularly good at engaging with the hard to reach and its contribution should not be lost once local authorities start to take control.
“I would hope that local authorities will recognise the voluntary sector as a strong partner in local programmes,” she says.
She adds that it is currently unclear as to whether her charity will continue to run its local programmes when the change happens and that talks are currently taking place. Sutton says it is also crucial that parents are still allowed to have a strong say in the services that are provided in order to ensure they match local needs.
Like Sutton, Phil Osborne, backs his own sector. He is head of the early years and child care service at Surrey Council and argues that local authorities are in a “better position” to ensure local programmes engage with the hardest to reach than the current system.
“The strategic role of the local authority will ensure a better targeting of the children’s centres of the future on these groups of families,” he says.
He adds that the way local programmes were set up may have led to those who are relatively less deprived using the services more. “I would expect that the brief that was given may not have been sufficient enough for services to target specific hard to reach individuals and that may well have led to some self selection.”
The data was gathered from home visits with 1,6042 nine and 36 month old children and their families in the first 150 Sure Start local programme areas and 2,610 families in 50 comparison Sure Start to-be communities. All the local programmes had been in existence for at least three years.
The evaluation team is keen to stress that it typically takes three years for local programmes to achieve a full range of functioning services and therefore there was only a limited period when children and families might have been influenced by them.
“Therefore, the findings of this report represent, at best, early indications of whether Sure Start local programmes might be affecting the wellbeing of children and families,” the study concludes.
Instead it argues that more definitive conclusions can be made once the nine month old children and their families living in Sure Start areas featured in the report are followed up when they are 36 months old and exposed to Sure Start for a much greater length of time.
Sutton said it seemed “very early” to be making judgements. “It’s early days, a lot of those programmes are not bedded down yet,” she said.
Osborne agrees the programmes are in their infancy and argues that by their very nature hard to reach groups are difficult to engage.
“Sometimes just getting a family to come over the door step is a major achievement and how you measure that achievement is questionable,” says Sutton.
“It’s those kinds of things that are much harder to measure, so when you are trying to tick the boxes the added values that those programmes are bringing are not measured when doing these types of evaluations.”
The researchers also compared different local programmes and found that those led by health services may have more beneficial effects than others. Graeme Cooke, senior parliamentary and policy officer at children’s charity 4Children, said there is a “general feeling” that the low level of involvement by primary care trusts in Sure Start is one of the “weaknesses” of the programme but that where health leads this has a positive effect.
“Prioritising the involvement of health services in children’s centres should now be done,” he said.
However, Cheryll Adams, professional officer at the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association said that possible cuts to health visiting services, due to government plans to change commissioning in the NHS, would threaten the programme’s successful development.
“The Department for Education and Skills is ploughing money into Sure Start, maybe some of that money should be used to prevent health visitor posts being cut,” she said.
The government announced new practice guidance for Sure Start children’s centres alongside the evaluation results. This contains advice on how to get to the hardest to reach and there is to be greater emphasis on outreach and home visiting work in local programmes to try to bring this about.
While Sure Start has escaped criticism this time all eyes will be on the evaluation’s follow up studies when, depending on the results, support may not be so forthcoming.