Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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A bit of a mess: why the Government's plans to end child poverty were botched

Published By: The Independent - 08 May 2008

Hilary Wilce

Sure Start

Ten years and billions of pounds after it started, a massive government programme to level the playing field for disadvantaged children has failed to have any significant impact and been slated by critics as a disaster.

Sure Start was set up to tackle social and economic problems of pre-school children and their families, but report after report has shown it to be a black hole into which money has been poured without results.

Last month government evaluators found a first glimmer of hope. They reported that children in Sure Start areas are better behaved and more independent that children in other areas, and that their parents are showing more signs of positive parenting.

But critics were quick to point out that the same piece of research also shows that Sure Start has had no impact on crucial areas like children's language development and the involvement of fathers in their children's lives. The programme, they say, is ill-targetted, poorly implemented and a colossal waste of money.

“Three billion pounds has been spent in the last nine years,” says Maria Miller, shadow minister for the family, “and they are still not hitting seven out of 14 of their key indicators. You need a much more focussed approach.”

And Gary Craig, professor of social justice at Hull University, who has scrutinised how well Sure Start supports minority families says, “When you look at the sums of money involved it's a missed opportunity for ethnic and minority children of historic proportion. This was the one chance they had to be put on a level playing field, and it's been missed. It's a national disaster!”

In response, Sure Start supporters argue that a programme aiming to change behaviour and attitudes was never going to show quick results, and that the new research proves it is on track. “This new evidence does show it is having an impact across whole areas,” points out Anne Longfield, chief executive of the charity 4Children. “The Government has hit sticky patches, but it has held its nerve and is now starting to see results.”

And Jay Belsky, professor of psychology at Birkbeck University, who is leading the official evaluation, believes the latest report from his team is encouraging. “Two years ago I would have put even money, at best, on getting these results.”

Sure Start was launched in 1998 as a visionary plan to give children an equal start in life. It was to work in the poorest areas, bringing together health and education services, and supporting parents.

Hopes were high. Educational data showed that children who were behind when they started primary school never made up lost ground, so it made sense to tackle social and educational problems at source. And the programme was modelled on work done in the United States that had shown that investing in disadvantaged pre-schoolers brought a seven-fold economic return over the long-term by lowering crime and raising employment.

But government-funded evaluators found no sign of progress and even found evidence that groups like teenage mothers and minority families, the very people the programme was supposed to help, were finding it stressful and intrusive. The National Audit Office discovered that the finances of a third of Sure Start centres were in a mess, while a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said that the £1bn spent in the first five years had gone mainly on start-ups and bureaucracy, with little gain for children. If the programme had been about a more politically-visible group than tiny tots, the outcry would have been deafening.

Meanwhile the Government was changing the goal posts. Today, Sure Start has evolved into something entirely different - a way of delivering services to all pre-school children and their families. Every community in the country, all 3,500 of them, is to have a Children's Centre by 2010, offering integrated services for young families.

For some, this is disaster piled upon disaster. Last year Cary Craig, wrote a damning official evaluation of Sure Start's support for minority families. He found that minorities were not using the services, or being employed by them. There was no government guidance or monitoring, and little understanding of differences between cultural groups -- that, for example, the pre-school needs of African families with two parents and a mother at home were entirely different from those of Afro-Caribbean families where working single mothers predominated. Traveller children barely featured in any of the 700 projects he analysed.

“Now the waves are closing over the Sure Star experiment,” he says. “And you cannot do what needs to be done with the kind of universal service we are going to have now.”
The Government counters that new guidance is to be issued on working with minority families, and that Children's Centres in deprived areas are to get two outreach workers to contact needy families. But the Tories want to double the number of health visitors instead.

“Health visitors have a very good profile in reaching hard-to-reach families,” says Maria Miller, “yet their numbers have been slashed in recent years. Outreach workers are unprofessional and untrained. If you are going to be spending so much money, you've got to do it in the most effective way.”

But Sure Start's intention is to integrate all health, education and social services. “And you don't turn an ocean liner overnight. You need time for things to work their magic when they are effective, and you also need time to identify what's effective in the first place,” says Jay Belsky. “However I am impressed by this Government's willingness to embrace disappointing news and make changes to modify the programme.”

“It's a very long game, and it is far from easy,” says Anne Longfield. “But the infrastructure around Children's Centres is clearly moving into place and collaboration and integration is becoming a working fact of life for all agencies.”

Meanwhile Linden West, a reader in education research at Canterbury Christchurch University, who followed families in a Sure Start area in Margate for more than five years, believes that some progress has been there from the start. “Time and again we found that parents had had dismal experiences with various professionals in the past, but, under Sure Start, professionals were encouraged to talk to each other, and began to work in less paternalistic ways, with parents as partners.”

Very slowly, he says, new life began to emerge in an area that had been a social dumping ground since the 1950s. Mothers met other mothers, parents gained confidence, reached out and began do more things. “What we were able to evidence was that the texture of a community was being created.”

Sure Start aims to do nothing less than knit up the fabric of a fractured society. It is an enormous ambition that may take a generation or more to show whether it can work or not. Until then lots more money will be required - and even more political nerve.

At the end of a cul-de-sac of lock-up garages in north Bexley, stands a smart new building - the Northend Children's Centre. Such centres are the new face of Sure Start, designed to offer childcare and education, health and family support to all young families, and to reach out to the most disadvantaged. This outer London area of new factories and older social housing has many such households.

Inside there is a Pre-School Learning Alliance nursery on the ground floor, and upstairs smaller rooms used for a variety of activities. Today midwives are waiting to see new mothers, a counsellor is due in to meet with a young father, and children are having a wonderful time doing messy play.

Holly, 19, is the teenage mother of baby Maisy. She doesn't want to give her surname, but is outspoken about how the Centre has changed her life. “It's really welcoming, really nice. I go to the Choices class, for young mothers, and we talk about jobs and things, and get help with our benefits if we need it. And I've made new friends.”
Emma Taylor, 33, has found help for Harry, 2, who has a speech delay and can be challenging, and help for herself in handling him. “I've learnt such a lot, I know how to deal with him in a completely different way.”

Claire Watts, an energetic parent volunteer with childcare qualifications, has set up a twins group and is planning a group for pre-school Down's Syndrome children, a condition that one of her 2-year-old twins, Alfie, has. Coming to groups at the Centre, she says, helps children to socialise and mothers to gain friends, skills and confidence.
Bexley will have 21 Children's Centres by 2010, and has been praised by the Government for its work with pre-school families. Northend is a hub for a toy library, swimming sessions, a childminder network, out of school clubs, play sessions, young parent groups, health visitor advice, drop-in groups, a black women's groups, help for job seekers, classes in cookery and first aid, a speech and language group, a dental clinic and a mobile library. It liaises with the police, schools and voluntary groups, and reaches out to hard-to-reach families. Workers knock door-to-door, put up fliers, work with church groups, and use census data to target the neediest areas.

“You really have to know your area, and understand the data you're working from,” says project manager, Beverly Mills. “We're trying hard, but we haven't got it all right yet.”
Workers are also learning to work in cross-disciplinary teams, getting used to each other's aims, perceptions and professional jargon. “It sounds easy, but it is a huge challenge,” says development manager Jane Vong. “It means people are having to look at things with completely new eyes.”