Longer term outcomes questioned

What lessons for Sure Start?


Since its beginning, in 1965, as a part of the US War on Poverty, Head Start’s goal has been to boost the school readiness of low-income children. Based on a “whole child” model, the programme provides comprehensive services that include preschool education; medical, dental, and mental health care; nutrition services; and efforts to help parents foster their child’s development. Our own Sure Start programme is modelled on Head Start.  Head Start services are designed to be responsive to each child’s and family’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.  So Head Start has the ambitious mandate of improving educational and developmental outcomes for children from economically disadvantaged families.  Its mandate requires that ‘it meet the needs of the whole child, including the cognitive, social-emotional, and health needs of children, and positively influence the parenting practices of their parents.’

The Head Start Impact Study (2010) examined the impacts of Head Start on these four domains. So, how effective has the programme been?  The study showed that providing access to Head Start ‘led to improvements in the quality of the early childhood settings and programs children experienced.  On nearly every measure of quality traditionally used in early childhood research, the Head Start group had more positive experiences than those in the control group.’  These impacts on children’s experiences translated into favourable impacts at the end of one year in the domains of children’s cognitive development and health, as well as in parenting practices.  There were more significant findings across the measures within these domains for 3- year-olds in that first year (and only the 3-year-old cohort experienced improvements in the social-emotional domain.)  So returns were positive.

But, and here is the catch, the report found that ‘by the end of 1st grade, there were few significant differences between the Head Start group as a whole and the control group as a whole for either cohort’ And ‘the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.  Impacts at the end of kindergarten were scattered ‘  So a programme going for 45 years attracting billions of dollars of investment to encourage early interventions in deprived communities has some initial impact but very little it appears  after  an initial period.  The idea behind Head Start was sound. You take a million or so of the poorest 3 and 4 year olds and through targeted interventions you give them support and a leg up on socialisation and early years education. If it works then it saves money in the long term by producing fewer criminals and welfare recipients and more employable, productive and engaged citizens.

There is plenty of international evidence that high quality early interventions are important. Importantly the Head Start pilots run by motivated professionals in the 1960s delivered encouraging results which was why the programme was rolled out nationally, albeit against opposition from conservatives. So why did Head Start graduates perform about the same as pupils of similar income and social status who were not part of the programme? Basically because something went wrong as, using the jargon, it was “taken to scale”  Indeed, the results were sufficiently shocking that the Department of Health and Human Services sat on them for several years probably because they were trying to work out ways by re-running the data to spin it more positively.

To look at why it failed to live up to expectations you have to look at the delivery systems and processes on the ground. Remember this started as a War against Poverty rather than as a Federal Education programme (which is why it was not run by the federal Department of Education) . It sought to rebuild communities from the bottom up, through local agencies called community action programmes. Some were inefficient and most of these  were controlled by ambitious local politicians dispensing funds and local  patronage .As the journalist Joe Klein (Time) observed ‘they are far more adept at dispensing work jobs than mastering the subtle nuances of early education’. An Obama administration official told Klein “The argument that Head Start opponents make is that it’s a jobs program and, sadly, there is something in that”.

Does this have any lessons for us? There are two.

First that however good a pilot is it doesn’t necessarily up-scale well and projects therefore have to be constantly evaluated. Secondly, as Head Start informed the development of Sure Start here, we should therefore be much more vigilant, particularly given the billions invested in Sure Start, in measuring the effectiveness of the programme which depends on local partnerships for its delivery, partnerships which are often less than transparent, as the National Audit Office has found out, in measuring their effectiveness and outcomes. The NAO in a 2006 report found that over half (56 per cent) of the local authorities consulted were not monitoring the performance of  Sure Start centres and a similar number (52 per cent) were doing no work to identify the cost or cost-effectiveness of services. A follow up report in 2009 found that not much had changed in terms of benchmarking performance of Sure Start Centres. Initial evaluations found too that the programme, though clearly benefiting some families, they were often not the poorest families. Sure Start should be subject to much greater scrutiny and accountability than is currently the case.

Head Start Impact Study; Final Report; Executive Summary; January 2010

Prepared for: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation; Administration for Children and Families U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Washington, D.C.


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