• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 17th June, 2009

Sure Start evaluator gives Treasury credit

Latest results from the national evaluation of the UK’s flagship prevention program, Sure Start, seem to be rewarding the hopes of those who have been predicting that the longer the initiative runs the more impact it will have.Performance findings reported in The Lancet suggest that the difference between areas where Sure Start is or is not operating is bigger than in 2005.Previously, there were signs that among some of the most difficult populations the program’s presence might even be aggravating certain problems.But, so far, the critics of the evaluation process have not relented. Also writing in the The Lancet, Penny Kane from University of Melbourne, for instance, has questioned the latest findings, describing some of the study’s limitations as “insoluble”. For Edward Melhiuish, the Executive Director of the National Evaluation (NESS), continuing criticism of the reliance on quasi-experimental methods is ironic as well as galling.He is a veteran of the historically unprofitable tactic of banging at the door of government, demanding that robust research be used in the formulation of policy. “Let evidence lead the way” sums up his attitude.A father of five himself, Melhuish has also been unwavering in his conviction that research should always have one eye on the impact it can make on the real lives of children.He succeeded in finding his own way into the policy process while working at the EPPI Centre in the late 1990s, where his activity influenced policy decisions on the provision of preschool care and extended parental leave, leading, naturally enough, to his association the Sure Start evaluation. Fragile as they are, the channels of communication that exist between researchers and policymakers represent a recent advance. He explains how, during the 1980s and early 1990s, his work fell on deaf ears. At the Thomas Coram Research Unit, he carried out research into the effects of different types and quality of childcare. It was acknowledged in the Children Act 1989, but it emerged out of an otherwise bleak landscape for researchers. “Throughout the 1980s I was producing government reports and research papers, all relevant to policy, but an awful lot of the effort was wasted. Government policy largely ignored evidence.”

How Labour replaced the whim with the will

In the early 1990s he moved on to work for the European Commission, comparing childcare systems across the continent. Clear distinctions were already evident: Scandinavian countries investing heavily in young children; Southern European countries doing practically nothing; the rest somewhere in between. Melhuish laments that interesting comparisons – illuminating in retrospect – had little effect on policy. From the EC he moved to the EPPI Centre – a journey that coincided favorably with the change in UK politics. He readily gives New Labour the credit for embracing evidence-based policy, and, in particular, he praises the Treasury’s attitude under the navigation of Gordon Brown. “Since 1997, not always, but often, research has been influential on policy – which is a fundamental change.” The change was permanent, too, and evident in the set up of Sure Start. “It was based on the reading of evidence. It was not a political whim. There was a political will to break the cycle of disadvantage, so they looked at the evidence to see how to do that,” he says. He is well aware of the shortcomings of the national evaluation of Sure Start, but he maintains, nevertheless, that the latest findings strongly suggest that it is working. The 2008 findings on parenting and social development are much improved, he says, perhaps because infrastructure and training needed time to grow and settle before it would run properly. “Previously there was practically nothing happening in this area. To create a whole new workforce takes years. We’re only talking about 2000. In 2009 we’re only starting to build up the momentum.”He is also at pains to point out that the evaluation has led to more intelligent fine-tuning. “Earlier on there was an emphasis on including greater numbers of children in the program. Often the easiest parents to get involved weren’t the most disadvantaged.” Once learned, these lessons have been translated into changes that put heavier emphasis on reaching the most disadvantaged and also on providing a much clearer set of guidelines about what should be provided. His work on the national evaluation continues and he is excited about the likely fruits from the longitudinal data on children who have grown up with Sure Start. Children in the sample taken in 2002 are now approaching their seventh birthdays. “The history of these children growing up with or without Sure Start will be really powerful.”[See also: Learning the moral of the Sure Start story and Sure Start’s shaky start is shored up] References: Kane P, “Sure Start Local Programmes in England” Lancet 372 (2008), pp. 1610–1612Melhuish E, Belsky J, Leyland A H, Barnes J for the National Evaluation of Sure Start Research Team, “Effects of fully-established Sure Start Local Programmes on 3-year-old children and their families living in England: a quasi-experimental observational study”, The Lancet 372 (2008), pp 1641–1647.

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