Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sure Start, uncertain finish

Sure Start centres were built all over England in "deprived" areas. In my own town of Prudhoe there is one in the East End of the town and where I work, in East Durham, there are Sure Starts in most villages and towns. Labour in Government rightly recognised that a child's early development was critical and that helping young mothers have support to get into the job market.

So it set off building a network of over 2,000 centres to provide such support at a massive cost, both in construction and running costs, in wards that on average contain the most people in poverty. It seems like the right thing to do. I work with Sure Start centres in work and in Prudhoe and they are led by dedicated managers and are full of great workers and volunteers. It should work and that was why, despite it being too early for evidence to come in proving the efficacy of the investment, Labour pressed on with more centres.

Now we have over 2,000 centres costing £885m to run nationally (2009/10), so we will be able to see the benefits. A 2006 study said that, despite the centres being in deprived areas, they did not have enough people using it who were disadvantaged. So the government spent £79m on outreach work. Reporting on this in January 2010, the National Audit Office reported that this had not been sufficiently effective and was not "cost effective".

Now the well respected Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University has done a study of 117,000 children starting primary school and reported that, "basic levels of development in reading, vocabulary and maths have remained largely unchanged". The Journal reports that Christine Merrell, who led the research, said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement. Our findings reinforce the concern the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them.”


Labour MPs seem to just want to fall back on anecdotal evidence of their experience that the centres are nice and not admit that merely building centres in deprived areas does not mean that they will be mainly used by middle class savvy parents. I wonder how many years it will be before they can't be grown up and admit that they got things wrong from time to time. During the election, I campaigned a lot on the former Bleach Green estate in Blaydon. It once was a very deprived council estate but is now a very nice private residential estate. The council has put a lovely sure start right by this estate. It is a deprived area but is largely used by parents in the nice estate opposite. It is always the case that even in the most deprived area, there are still sharp elbowed middle class parents.


With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if the government wouldn't have been better at targeting early year development for poorer families more directly in a way similar to the new Pupil Premium, where the resources are directly attached to the people in question. That means that poorer people in affluent areas get support and that silly geographical ward boundaries do not affect service delivery. In Prudhoe, this was shown by a parent who recounted how the Prudhoe Children's centre proposed to charge her more for childcare because she lived in a neighbouring ward, when people over the street (both in the affluent Castlefields estate in my town)  could get a cheaper rate.


However, we now have a massive network of sure starts so we need to make sure they work better at actually equalising the start that the poorest children make as they enter education. Studies show that progress made early makes a massive difference. I would propose that funding for these centres is structured so that the centres with the most quantity of people from poor families (regardless of which area they live in) will get a higher level of support.

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