Last month, I spoke at an event to celebrate 20 years of Sure Start and to remember one if its founders, Baroness Tessa Jowell. The coming together of people who believed in and were passionate about the programme could have made for a very rose-tinted debate.
Instead, the debate was a realistic reflection of the efficacy of both the architecture and delivery of the programme. The principles upon which the programme was conceived were clear. Sure Start was intended to provide disadvantaged communities with a core set of services including outreach, support for parents and carers, childcare and play, health services and support for children with additional needs.
There was no prescribed model, rather an expectation that local areas would design programmes in a way that best suited the needs of their communities.
The early findings of the impact of the programme were mixed. There were positive benefits in relation to child behaviour, social competence and parenting among non-teenage mothers and their children. But for teenage mothers, lone parents and families in workless households, some of those indicators, along with verbal ability, were poorer.
As with many new initiatives that allow ‘a thousand flowers to bloom’, there was significant variation among Sure Start Local Programmes. The evaluation found that some of the key features of effectiveness included effective governance and leadership, a professional ethos, qualifications of staff and multi-agency teamwork.
When Sure Start evolved into Children’s Centres, with a more prescriptive model and greater focus on both child and parental outcomes, the benefits were more positive, particularly in relation to behaviour, parenting, health and worklessness. Some of these benefits may have also been due to the simultaneous expansion of free early education for threes and fours.
The evaluators suggest that these improvements were due to increased exposure to the programme (it takes around three years for a programme to be ‘fully functional’) and increases in quality and staff experience.
Since 2010, funding for Children’s Centres has been cut and services have reduced. The conclusion of the debate at the event was that, while mistakes were made early on, there was lots of good practice on which to build. In the drive for austerity and ‘quick wins’, the Government failed to consider the many ways in which the programme was effective. Instead of cultivating the flowers that bloomed, there is a risk that the entire lawn has been mowed.