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Sure Start sets back the worst placed youngsters, study finds
· Resources 'sucked
away' under flagship programme
Lucy Ward 1st December 2005
The government's flagship Sure Start programme is setting back the behaviour and development of young children in the most alienated households, according to the first big national evaluation of the scheme.
Though the £3bn programme is benefiting some poor families, the government commissioned study published yesterday concluded that children of teenage mothers and unemployed or lone parents did worse in Sure Start areas than those in similarly deprived communities elsewhere.
The behaviour and speaking and social skills of three-year-olds in the most disadvantaged families all suffered in areas covered by Sure Start programmes, which run in 524 poor areas.
The scheme produced some small developmental benefits for children from relatively less disadvantaged families, however, as well as "modest" improvements in parenting in those households. Mothers of three-year-olds were less likely to slap their children, for example.
Researchers believe their findings suggest that those who are able to make the most of new services and resources are effectively sucking away support from those in the greatest need, who may also feel "overwhelmed or turned off" by the Sure Start support on offer.
The conclusions, flagged in the Guardian in September, make disappointing reading for ministers, who have already moved to extend the Sure Start principles to a new nationwide network of 3,500 children's centres - offering a mix of childcare, parental support and a range of health and educational services - by 2010.
New guidance for the children's centres, also published yesterday by the Department for Education and Skills, attempts to address the concerns raised in the evaluation, calling for more efforts to target the most alienated families, including more outreach work and home visiting.
Ministers want the new centres, and the local authorities that oversee them, to ensure they are aware of which parts of their community are excluded from services, and to track which families use the resources on offer. The guidance also says that centres must beware of merely offering the services parents say they want, at risk of losing sight of their main purpose of making a difference for children.
The children's minister, Beverley Hughes, yesterday said the evaluation did not throw into question the Sure Start concept. "I don't think there is anything wrong with the philosophy, but the issue is implementation on the ground."
While ministers have acted on the long-awaited findings of the ongoing £20m Sure Start evaluation, conducted by a team at London University's Birkbeck College, there are criticisms both within and outside the DfES of the methodology used.
The study looked at a cross section of nine- and 36-month-old children from 16,500 families in 150 Sure Start areas. It also looked at 2,600 families in 50 control areas with similar levels of deprivation. But it did not ask participants whether they had actually used Sure Start services.
Supporters of Sure Start say the government should in any case not have sought results from programmes running for a mere three years, by which time the impact on families and children would be limited at best. They say more definitive conclusions will emerge when the nine- month-olds in the current study are followed up at age three.
The evaluation concludes that, overall, "only limited evidence of Sure Start impact was detected and that which emerged was often limited to specific sub-populations". Whether beneficial or adverse, these limited effects were small.
Families appeared to function slightly better in Sure Start areas - there was less household chaos and less "negative parenting" - but the effects on children were restricted to the three-year-olds, with no discernible difference to nine-month-olds.
Three-year-olds with non-teen mothers showed fewer behavioural problems and greater social competence when living in Sure Start areas. But youngsters with teenage mothers or in workless or lone parent familiies scored lower on verbal ability and social competence and higher on behaviour problems than their counterparts in comparison areas.
The researchers concluded: "Possibly the utilisation of services by those with greater human capital left others with less access to services than would have been the case had they not lived in Sure Start areas."
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