Defending Sure Start against vicious right-wing attacks

As questions continue to mount over the Conservatives' policies on Sure Start, one of their media proxies has launched a vicious attack on the scheme.

As questions continue to mount over the Conservatives’ policies on Sure Start, one of their media proxies has launched a vicious attack on the scheme, saying it has “failed” and “should be scrapped”. In January it had been reported that “only a few” of the 3,500 centres would survive if David Cameron won the election.

The TPA and the Daily Mail cite studies to claim Sure Start has done “more harm than good”, has “frittered away money”, and that “single mothers, teenagers and jobless parents who went through Sure Start learned less and were more prone to behaviour problems than those who didn’t”.

Left Foot Forward rebuts these claims, using evidence from the Institute for Study of Children, Families and Social Issues (ISCFSI), Ofsted, and the National Audit Office, starting with an evaluation of Sure Start in 2008 – led by the same team that in 2005 had produced the negative findings cited by the Mail.

The ISCFSI report, one two major impact studies of Sure Start, which compared children in early Sure Start areas with those in other areas, found evidence of moderate impact on 7 out of 14 measured outcomes, comparing outcomes for children who lived in SSLP areas in the evaluation with children who did not in the Millennium Cohort Study at age nine months and three years, finding:

Parents of three-year-old children showed less negative parenting while providing their children with a better home learning environment;

• Three-year-old children in Sure Start areas had better social development with higher levels of positive social behaviour and independence/self-regulation than children in other similar areas;

• Behaviour was better in Sure Start areas as a result of better parenting; and

Three-year-old children in Sure Start areas had higher immunisation rates and fewer accidental injuries than children in other similar areas not having a SSLP.

It further found that children living in Sure Start areas:

• Enjoyed better health outcomes (they were 50 per cent more likely to have received all immunisations; and 30 per cent less likely to have had an accident in the year preceding the data collection);

• Experienced lower levels of problematic parenting;

Experienced a higher quality home learning environment;

• Lived in families more likely to access children and family services;

• Showed greater positive social behaviour and independence/self-regulation – partly due to better parenting; and

The positive effects appear to hold across the population, as opposed to particular groups of children and families as earlier evidence suggested.

Also that year, Ofsted surveyed 20 Sure Start centres in deprived areas in late 2008 and reported that:

• In 11 of the 20 centres visited, the impact of the integration of services on improving outcomes for children, parents and families was good or outstanding. In only one centre was the impact inadequate. Nearly all of the centres had established an effective balance between providing integrated services that are open to everyone and those that are targeted towards potentially vulnerable families;

Parents strongly preferred a single site, one stop shop model for children’s centres. This is impractical in rural areas, where families, especially disadvantaged families, may not be able to afford to travel to a centre remote from their homes;

• In the centres visited, children with early learning difficulties/and or disabilities were well provided for, with good early interventions and prompt referrals;

The key work of the centres in reaching the most potentially vulnerable children and families was developing well; and

• Children’s centre teachers, speech and language therapists and day-care staff were successfully improving the quality of day-care provision in the centres visited.

More recently, the National Audit Office provided a memorandum to the Select Committee in January 2010 with some additional data. Its findings include:

The overall effectiveness of 98 per cent of the childcare in [children’s] centres was judged to be good or outstanding in Ofsted inspections up to July 2009 – this is based on an NAO analysis of Ofsted data for 150 centres;

• Since 2008 the proportion of children under five achieving a ‘good level of development’ increased by three percentage points, and the gap between the lowest achievers and the average has decreased by two percentage points – this period coincided with a rapid expansion of children’s centres;

• Take up of Sure Start services is ‘close to maximum capacity’ [though some flexibility is needed to be responsive] – there is 85% take up for early education or daycare; 80% for parental outreach; and 75% for drop-in and health services; and

• Nearly three quarters of local authorities say that the current level of Sure Start funding is important or essential to the financial viability of early learning and full day care provision.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence highlighting the benefits of Sure Start, like the NetMums “3 Men and a Baby” politics survey, conducted in December, which received 5,900 responses. It was a wide-ranging survey asking about politics – whether people will turn out and vote (more said they would this time) who for, and why; they looked at the issues – what was important to people and what they felt about services and initiatives from the current Government, finding:

• 4,727 were from England and answered the Q on Children’s Centres;

• Of these, Children’s Centres were considered to be relevant by 68% (to 3198 people);

• 71% of these said that Children’s Centres had ‘helped’;

Only 29% said they’d felt “let down”; and

• Of all the government initiatives NetMums asked about – which covered, among others, schools, maternity care, GPs and tax credits – it was the children’s centres that got the highest level of satisfaction, followed by maternity leave / flexible working rights (69% felt helped, of those whom it was relevant to), and then tax credits at 60%.

Birkbeck Professor Edward Melhuish, who led the ISCFSI study, responding to claims Sure Start centres have failed to improve school results, had earlier told Left Foot Forward that:

“The problem is that Early Sure Start programmes were targeted on 0-4 year olds. This year 11 year olds were born in 1998, they would have been 4 by 2002. The very earliest Sure Start (60) serving around 3000 children had their funding agreed at the end of 1999 but they were not operational til 2002.

Thus this year 11 year olds are far too old to have been affected by the earliest sure start programmes. Even then the earliest 60 programmes would have only affected 3000 out of 650,000 children taking Sats in any one year.”

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