Nick Boles thinks that Sure Start is a waste of money. In a speech to the Resolution Foundation yesterday the MP for Grantham, Cameron loyalist and former director of Policy Exchange, said those who wanted to spend more money on Sure Start were indulging in “lazy sentimentalism.” Child development programmes should in future only receive taxpayer funding if they have a “substantial and measurable impact.”
Mr Boles has a reputation for floating ideas on behalf of the Conservative leadership. His blunt assessment of Sure Start is important because the coalition has generally been reluctant to speak out against Labour's flagship early years programme, fearing to seem critical of any initiative concerning disadvantaged children.
In truth, however, this government has been discreetly and gradually dismantling Sure Start and whittling away its funding. Current trials of a “payment by results” system for local authorities' spending on pre-school children will, if carried through, be the death knell for Sure Start. But we should not mourn its passing, for this has been a costly and foolish experiment, creating expectations which it has been unable to fulfil and pouring away billions of pounds in the process. Far from improving the life chances of poor and vulnerable children, it has probably harmed them, by drawing away resources and attention from the most needy and obscuring some of the root causes of long-term disadvantage.
When the Labour government embarked on Sure Start back in 1998, its declared ambition was to improve the early development of children in the poorest communities in an “inclusive and non-stigmatising way.” Its failings over its first few years have been well documented; despite spending £452 million in 3 years, Sure Start had little noticeable impact on children in the areas it covered, except that the poorest and most vulnerable seemed to do worse if there was a Sure Start programme operating in their neighbourhood. In other words, Sure Start centres were being used by families who didn't really need them, whilst the hard -to-reach were left further out in the cold.
In 2005 the government tried a new approach: local authorities were given responsibility for running the programme, to be delivered through Children's Centres, and these were to focus mainly on providing childcare and back-to-work advice for mothers. The government also embarked on a trial of pilot schemes in the shape of “Family nurse partnerships” aimed at the most chaotic households; the coalition has expanded this pilot in the hope that intensive and targeted intervention will be more effective than the Sure Start model. This was an attempt to respond to the results emerging from the ongoing evaluation of Sure Start, being conducted by a team based at Birkbeck College, whose findings exposed the ineffectiveness of children's centres in improving outcomes for those they were designed to help.
The Birkbeck team's results disproved the hope that putting a shiny new children's hub in an area of deprivation would change the lives of families in the area. On a wide range of outcome measures, which included health, social and emotional development, cognitive skills and family and community functioning, children seemed to be reaping little or no benefit from Sure Start. Results released in 2005 suggested that the presence of Sure Start might actually be harmful to the educational and behavioural development of children of the youngest and poorest mothers. The only beneficial impact seemed to be that mothers were reporting less anger with their children and less chaotic households.
Later evaluations, monitoring child development over time, suggest that the modifications to Sure Start had reduced its negative impacts. But as the first generation of Sure Start babies reached school age, it was becoming dismayingly clear that the programme was still failing to make any difference to outcomes, particularly those capable of being objectively assessed.
As part of the process of reshaping Sure Start and shifting resources to other forms of intervention, the coalition's 2010 spending review froze Sure Start spending and removed its ring-fencing, leaving local authorities discretion on how to spend the money, providing only that they use it on early years initiatives of some kind. The payment by results model for children's centres, now being trialled in 27 local authorities, will require councils to show that the money they have spent on early years has improved child development and “school readiness.”
The most recent Birkbeck evaluation, released by the DfE last month, shows that this funding method will kill off Sure Start: its results are simply not good enough to justify any more spending. For children participating in Sure Start there were, in the words of the latest evaluation, “no consistent differences on any of the four child educational development outcomes, or on four child social and behavioural outcomes or on the two child health outcomes.” As in Birbeck's previous studies, mothers in Sure Start areas were reporting less chaotic households, a better home environment and warmer parenting, but none of these outcomes were capable of being objectively assessed, nor did they seem to be improving their children's results.
With typical academic understatement the authors of the study note that Sure Start's lack of effect on child functioning raises questions about “the return on investment.” Given the £billions spent, it certainly does. Having asked such questions more than six years ago, and having been sceptical of Sure Start since it was first launched, I'm pleased that government policy is finally moving in the right direction. And I hope that Nick Boles' bluntness about the programme's failure will be echoed by greater openness from ministers when they are challenged about Sure Start in the future.