Sure Start ‘has failed to boost children’s literacy’, new report from CEM  suggests


Few doubt the importance of early interventions in education . Sure Start  which has received billions of pounds of investment over the years  since 1999  and whose funding  is being largely protected by the Coalition government, is the main means by which disadvantaged children receive targeted support. On 30 September 2010, 3,634 Sure Start Children’s Centres were open in England, providing access to services to over three million children under five and their families. Sure Start Children’s Centres are multi-purpose centres bringing together childcare, early education, health, employment and support services, for pre-school children and families. A principal goal of Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) has been to enhance the life chances of young children and their families by improving services in areas of high deprivation. SSLPs were set up between 1999 and 2003 and were experimental, in the sense of trying out different ways of working with deprived communities, where provision had been poor for years. In November 2002 the Inter-departmental Childcare Review promoted the concept of Children’s Centres, following the early lessons from Sure Start, to provide integrated care and education, family support, health services and childminder support. Moves toward the Children Centre model were initiated in 2003 and confirmed in December 2004 in the ten year childcare strategy (HM Treasury, 2004) and from around 2005 SSLPs were generally functioning as Children’s Centres. From April 2006, they came under the control of Local Authorities There are  persuasive arguments about the value of preschool in levelling the playing field for disadvantaged students,  although there have been long standing doubts over some  Sure Start partnerships  cost-effectiveness and there have been difficulties in evaluating programmes which are delivered differently in different areas . A DCSF evaluation report in 2008 conceded that there is  a large degree of variation among Local Authorities and areas within Local Authorities in the way the new Children’s Centres are implemented. And noted too that  this   “poses challenges to evaluating their impact, as each programme is unique”. A National Audit Office report in 2006  found that “ they and local authorities had as yet collected only limited data to assess cost-effectiveness” and “we found that few centres or local authorities knew what centre activities cost or were allocating funds according to an assessment of need or demand for services”. Indeed  early reports on the first phase of  initiative indicated that the main beneficiaries were not disadvantaged children but more privileged ones’  An evaluation report  found  “ the most disadvantaged 3-year old children and their families (i.e., teen parents, lone parents, workless households) were doing less well in SSLP areas, while somewhat more advantaged children and families benefited (i.e., non-teen parents, dual parent families, working households)”

It now transpires, according to a report from a  team from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (Cem), at Durham University, that Children’s early language has improved little despite Sure Start,  one of whose aims is  boosting pre-school educational achievement.  The experts studying the development of 117,000 children starting primary school in England over eight years said their findings showed that early years programmes needed to be reviewed to check whether they were reaching those most in need, particularly pupils from poor backgrounds. ( its worrying that the same point was being made back in 2006)

Basic levels of development in early reading and vocabulary remained largely unchanged between 2001 and 2008. They looked at how children starting at the same 472 state primary schools each year scored in measures called Pips (performance indicators in primary schools), discriminating between different sounds and solving simple problems.

Dr Christine Merrell, who led the research, published by the Oxford Review of Education, said :

“Given the resources put into early years initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there has been no improvement.”

“Our findings reinforce the concern that the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them. If we really want to improve life for the more vulnerable and poorer sections of society, we need to target assistance much more effectively.”

The coalition has called for Sure Start schemes  to refocus their efforts on the poorest children, with middle-class parents likely to be charged for an increasing number of services.

Merrell said ‘Initiatives seem to have failed across the board. We need a widespread, reliable assessment programme.’ Small-scale research studies have found that early years interventions make a difference and lessons needed to be learned about how to apply this when a programme like Sure Start is rolled out on a wider scale, she said. Dr Merrell  though also pointed out that earlier small-scale studies of Sure Start local programmes had shown gains. ‘We need to really evaluate programmes right from the start to make sure they are working, and be prepared to change the intervention if it is not going well, and tweak it. We need to have constant monitoring to check we’re reaching the right children,’ she said. This is not rocket science. One has to wonder why after all these years and billions of pounds of investment it is not happening now in a way that satisfies the experts, given the evaluation problems were flagged up as we have seen  many years ago.  We still don’t know it seems which Centres are cost-effective and which aren’t.

Chief Executive of the charity 4Children, Anne Longfield however remains convinced about the effectiveness of Sure Start.She said in response to the report:

“These findings go against the grain of a mountain of new research which shows the enormous benefit of Sure Start for children and their parents. “Criticisms highlighted in this study are already being addressed and should not cast doubt over the excellent work happening across the country to ensure that Sure Start makes the biggest difference to those who need it most.


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