• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 16th June, 2009

Sure Start’s shaky start is shored up

The latest round of the national evaluation of Sure Start, the UK’s flagship program for children and parents in disadvantaged areas – is beginning to show all round benefits in several aspects of children’s lives. Reported in The Lancet, the new findings contrast with evidence that emerged in 2005 which showed mixed results and led to arguments about the value of the program, the integrity of the evaluation and the lack of useful relationship between the two. The newer results indicate that children in Sure Start areas are showing significantly better social development, more positive behavior and greater independence than those in comparable areas where the program has yet to be introduced.And the effects are not confined to children. The researchers from Birkbeck College at the University of London found that families in Sure Start areas are less likely to resort to negative parenting tactics, provide a better home learning environment and use other services for helping children and families more regularly. In similar contrast to the 2005 results, which suggested the program might actually be doing harm among some of the most disadvantaged populations, such as workless households, single parents and teenage mothers - the benefits being observed are now evenly spread.Sure Start attempts to integrate early education, childcare, health and family support services with the ultimate aim of combating child poverty and social exclusion. The effects continue to be modest, but the authors argue that they are “sufficiently large to be of policy significance in view of the fact that they applied on a population-wide basis”.Executive director Edward Melhuish and his team acknowledge the criticism of the quasi-experimental methods that have hindered the National Evaluation since it began in 2001. [See: Learning the moral of the Sure Start story] “A randomized controlled trial would have been the strongest evaluation strategy but government decisions precluded the possibility,” they write. Nevertheless, they insist that they have used the most robust methods available, given the circumstances. Almost 6,000 children, who were nine-months-old in the first phases of the evaluation were followed up at three years. Their trajectories were compared with approximately 2,000 children from similarly deprived areas who were part of the Millennium Cohort study. Melhuish and his colleagues put forward several explanations for Sure Start’s reversal of fortune. They point out, for example, that the format has changed. Initially it was area-based and there was little or no structure to guide the type of services offered to families. However, in the light of the disappointing results from the first wave of the evaluation, services were overhauled and attached to Children’s Centres. This change during 2004/ coincided with the introduction of more rigid requirements. They conclude that “a focused and specified approach to intervention in the child’s early years is more likely to improve parenting and children’s well-being”. They also point out that after seven years in action Sure Start has had time to bed in. Teething problems, such as shortages of skilled staff have been overcome. “Children and families in the present study might well have been exposed to more effective services than those encountered in the earlier phase of inquiry.”• Coverage of Sure Start’s progress continues tomorrow with a profile of Edward Melhuish, Executive Director of the National Evaluation (NESS).See: Melhuish E, Belsky J, Leyland A H and 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”, Lancet 372 (2008), pp 1641–1647

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