Editorial comment: Sure Start success

As Sure Start funding is channelled through local authorities, which are building a new generation of children’s centres to deliver the programme, the joins with child protection will be under the spotlight as never before. There is little doubt that the Sure Start local programmes have scored some spectacular successes. The challenge for local authorities will be to carry on that record of success given that the benefits, previously targeted on specific communities, will now theoretically be open to everybody.

The latest national evaluation, covering the years 2000-4, shows significantly fewer children under four living in workless households by the end of the period, suggesting that projects may have begun to provide parents with the skills necessary for jobs. Child care places and educational achievement at key stage two were both up, while birth deaths were down in the least deprived Sure Start areas. It is of course hard to unravel the beneficial effect of Sure Start from other factors, such as investment in education and child care. But two findings point in Sure Start’s favour: that local programme communities outstripped the rest of the country on all of these measures, and some of the best successes were correlated with other government area-based initiatives, suggesting that targeted interventions work.

Considering the preventive focus of Sure Start, it is at first sight surprising that the researchers count the rise in child protection enquiries and registrations as another achievement. Clearly local programmes have brought more children at risk of significant harm to light – a trend likely to continue as more children’s centres come on stream – but longer term there should be a sharp downturn as early interventions bear fruit.

The level of co-operation between Sure Start and child protection teams must be expected to improve still further now that local authorities are responsible for both. It is, however, plain that two groups have fared less well than other beneficiaries of Sure Start – the most deprived communities and ethnic minorities. Parent power in Sure Start projects has undoubtedly helped them to make an impact, but it tends to be the white, least deprived parents who sign up. The trick will be to find a middle way which continues to give parents a say, but switches more resources towards ethnic minorities and the poorest families, some of whom will be known to social services already.

Additional reading
Better news for Sure Start as fresh study reveals benefits

Further information
Sure Start

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