The latest report from the National Evaluation of Sure Start at Birkbeck College, University of London, is based on a follow-up of more than 5,000 seven-year-olds and their families living in areas with a Sure Start local programme (SSLP).
The report says that Government efforts to support children and their families through the original area-based approach to Sure Start paid off to some degree with parent outcomes, but not with regard to child outcomes.
It suggests that this is likely to be due to a focus on providing support and intervention for parents rather than on programmes likely to boost child development during the early phases of Sure Start.
The researchers claim that the introduction of free nursery hours for all threeand four-year-olds also resulted in most children benefitting from early education, irrelevant of whether they were in Sure Start areas.
While the evaluation says that the results are modest, it did find that Sure Start local programmes had some positive effects on children at age seven. Mothers reported engaging in less harsh discipline and said they provided a more stimulating home learning environment for their children.
It also found that mothers with boys were able to provide a less chaotic home environment and lone parents and workless households reported better life satisfaction.
The report goes on to say that the success of SSLPs comes from providing an infrastructure that is well placed to engage the most vulnerable groups and support them effectively.
Former Sure Start director Naomi Eisenstadt said, 'The most important thing to note about the research is that it measured the impact of Sure Start local programmes on children who were randomly selected for the Sure Start study at the very beginning of the initiative. Based on earlier evaluation results from this first phase of Sure Start, much has changed and improved.
'I believe that Sure Start did not do enough to encourage early language development in the first year or two of a child's life and that much more should be done in the very early years as the evaluation indicates. While the most recent evaluation results show several positive outcomes for parents, it also demonstrates that not enough energy was focused on children.'
She added, 'What we need now is fewer children's centres - ones that are properly staffed and funded. Spreading the funding thinly to prevent closures means that very few families get the kind of dedicated and persistent support that is needed to deliver good outcomes. The evaluation results do not tell us to stop Sure Start; they tell us how it can be further improved.
'Sure Start was based on a solid evidence base about the need for enriching experiences for children in their earliest years. This need has not changed, and Sure Start Children's Centres, if properly funded and implemented, can meet the need.'
Following the report's publication, Conservative MP Nick Boles has branded Sure Start children's centres a waste of money and suggested they be abandoned. In a speech to the Resolution Foundation he said, 'If we are going to make any difference to the future productivity of working people and the competitiveness of our economy, we must abandon this soggy approach and demand that the childcare and child development programmes we invest in have a substantial and measurable impact.'