Seamless support a good model but difficult to measure success
The DCSF Select Committee reporting on Sure Start Children’s Centres claimed that the model of breaking down silos between professions to provide seamless support for young families is a positive influence on the delivery of all services for children, and should be considered an exemplar for services for older young people. Partnerships between education and care, health services, voluntary sector organizations and other services supporting families are at the heart of the Children’s Centre approach. The Children’s Centre programme has been running since 2004 (Sure Start Local programmes (SSLPs) were the precursors of Children’s Centres)
These partnerships are working well in many places, but are still too patchyaccording to the report. Among health agencies, in particular, there is a worryingly mixed picture. Though Children’s Centres have been based on research evidence and a sound rationale, they have not yet decisively shown the hoped-for impact. The Committee concluded that evidence about outcomes must be collected more systematically and rigorously—a process hampered in many areas by lack of data. In particular, information that would allow Children’s Centres to be assessed for value for money is still more difficult to come by than it should be, although work in this area is progressing. Children’s Centres and local authorities do not yet have the data to hand at local level to be able to determine the effectiveness of Children’s Centres. Nearly all Centres can point to real successes with individual families. However, none of those inspected could provide a convincing analysis of performance based on rigorous analysis of data.
Children’s Centres host and deliver an array of different activities and services, which has given rise to some concerns that their focus can be too diffuse. However, while early education and care is clearly at the heart of Children’s Centres’ aims for child development, they should not be limited to just one way of bringing about positive change for families.
It is feared by some that implementing a universal service runs the risk of diluting the focus and resources expended on the most disadvantaged. However, the Committee believed that only universal coverage can ensure that all the most disadvantaged children, wherever they
live, can benefit from the programme; this was the right policy to pursue. The Committee believes it is essential that the Government continues to fund the programme sufficiently to maintain the universal nature of the service.
The Tories, though generally supportive of Sure Start, want better targeting and refocusing so that disadvantaged families benefit the most and that there is clearer measurement of the programmes effectiveness, Labour wants to find efficiency savings in the programme and in a recent announcement said that parents will soon be able to join with the staff to run a network of local children’s centres as part of a “federation” of Sure Start centres. The plan will see initially five federations set up, each made up of around 20 Sure Starts.
What has always been worrying about Sure Start (starting with SSLP’s) is that from the outset, it has been difficult to evaluate its success, partly due to the diffuse nature of the delivery systems, but this is increasingly hard to justify against the backdrop of swingeing cuts across the public sector and on-going calls for greater transparency and accountability in public sector programmes. Sure Start in future will have to become more accountable, with better on-going evaluation and better targeting and it will have get more from less. The Audit Commission several years ago identified how difficult it was to measure the programmes effectiveness. So it is extraordinary given the amount of public money involved, running into the billions, that this complaint is still echoed, even now, by the committee in this report.