A lack of growth in the economy is undermining the Government’s aim of eliminating the deficit within this parliament. This has kick-started the debate about where the extra savings will come from after the next election.
Last week, Nick Boles MP – a close ally of the Prime Minister – (pictured) targeted Sure Start Children’s Centres, the education and health community hubs for new families which were established by the last Labour Government. Boles claimed the latest evaluation of the programme proved government expenditure on it was “wasted over the last decade”. It is true that the evidence on the value of Sure Start for children’s development is disappointing. But the response should be to reform it, not to scrap it.
The latest report from the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) has measured how families living in a Sure Start area when their children are aged seven perform across 15 different outcomes, compared to a similar population not in a Sure Start area. It shows that the programme has improved two parental outcomes – engaging in less harsh discipline and delivering a more stimulating home learning environment. Sure Start has also helped to provide a less chaotic home environment for boys and improved life satisfaction for lone parents and workless households. In fact, when you compare these results with earlier evaluations, it shows improvements in four parenting outcomes for workless households. That suggests Children’s Centres responded to early criticisms that they weren’t doing enough to help the hardest-to-reach families.
These improvements for parents are welcome. But what of the other outcomes? Since the quality of parenting is a strong influence on children’s development, you would expect improved parenting outcomes to lead to improved children’s outcomes. But while Foundation Stage Profile results and those at Key Stage One have improved for all children in recent years there is a lack of any observable progress on child outcomes resulting from Sure Start alone. It’s formal childcare, rather than Sure Start centres, which seems to have been a sound investment to improve children’s development.
It may be the case that any positive developmental, social or emotional outcomes for children from Sure Start manifest later in life. As former director of Sure Start Naomi Eisenstadt has stated, “it may just be too early to tell”. But the lack of evidence to date isn’t encouraging.
Does all this mean we should scrap the programme? No. Evidence from the Head Start programme introduced in the US in 1965, which Sure Start is based on, does show positive effects on high-school graduation and propensity to crime. This indicates that Sure Start has the potential to make a huge impact. The challenge therefore is to reform Sure Start so it achieves its potential of demonstrably adding value to children’s development.
When I was working for the Conservative Party in opposition, we believed that paying Sure Start on a results basis could be an effective mechanism for getting practitioners to focus on delivering desirable outcomes. This payment-by-results approach is being trialled at the moment, with the chosen local authorities given their 5% reward payment only when the Sure Start centres in their areas have helped to achieve outcomes such as increased attendance in parenting programmes and improved breastfeeding rates. If the Government wants to see more progress on child outcomes, then the results Children’s Centres are paid on should be more reflective of that. UCL published a report yesterday suggesting more measurable outcomes that are good indicators of children’s development, such as skill at drawing and copying, and use of spoken and written language.
The evidence from abroad is clear and robust: integrated education, health and welfare services can reap long-term benefits to individuals and the public purse. Politicians shouldn’t despair and axe Sure Start. Rather, it should seek innovative ways of making sure the scheme fulfils its potential.