Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sure Start, uncertain reasoning

I was amused by yesterday's Guardian. The front page lead was an account of leaked report saying that early evaluation of the government's Sure Start scheme had been disappointing. In fact the report showed:
Sure Start as a whole failed to boost youngsters' development, language and behaviour. It also showed children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere.
This story was discussed in a leader and by Polly Toynbee. To be fair (as footballers all say nowadays) their arguments that it is early in the day to be evaluating Sure Start and that there are problems with the study in question were persuasive.

But they went further than that.

The leader concluded:
What is already apparent is that the expansion is under-funded. Ministers are trying to finance a fivefold increase with only double the amount of spending. That inevitably generates poorly performing schemes. If you want Scandinavian levels of excellence they do not come cheap.
And Toynbee concluded:
What is needed now is more, not less, intensive and expensive professional support. Even if there is no proof yet of Sure Start's direct effect on young children, Labour must now accelerate spending on this best hope for the children with the least chance.
Somehow a study, however flawed, suggesting that Sure Start does not work has been turned into an argument for spending even more money on the scheme. I can't help thinking there must be a flaw in the logic somewhere.


Peter Pigeon said...

tbf, the report identified some components that seemed to work, and one can make acase for their expansion. Still it is a knee-jerk reaction. But what else did we expect from Polly?

Liberal Neil said...

In my view it is too early to evaluate whether Sure Start will make a significant difference long term.

It can only work by changing deep rooted attitudes and social problems in communities and that will not happen quickly.

From what I have seen the scheme here is having some impact, even if only by providing some hours in the week where young parents and their children are in a positive and safe environment where they are encouraged to develop.

Saying that it is quite clear to me that the rules and regs around the scheme are something of a straightjacket that severly restrict the potential for success on the ground.

We could have made much better use of the resources in our local SureStart scheme if there were fewer restrictions on how things have to be done. A huge amount of time and energy is spent on form filling.

Toynbee is right to the extent that quality services of the kind offered by SureStart do not come cheap.

The Government's idea that schemes will some how become self-financing has no logic whatsoever. They either believe that it is worth investing money in thes eservices because the longer term benefits will justify it, or they don't.

A less constrained and better resourced scheme could bring a range of services to people at a much more local level, help improve parenting skills and confidence, boost literacy and social skills in youngesters, support local communities and be a catalyst for local voluntary action.

The current level of red tape around the SureStart scheme sadly makes this much less likely to happen.

(Former Chair of Abingdon Family Centre and member of Abingdon Sure Start Management Committee)

Iain Sharpe said...

I am not sure if my article for liberator attacking the dreaded Toynbee is going in the current issue (as a Collective member you would know best Jonathan).

However, the last time I read her pontificating about SureStart she was complaining that the money had not been ringfenced so local councils could spend it as they wish.

I am in danger of becoming quite unbalanced on the subject of Polly Toynbee. She represents all that is most patronising about the left. As Hilaire Belloc once said of the Webbs: 'Running the poor is [her] hobby.'

Fiona said...

What irritates me most about Polly Toynbee is the way she boasts about Surestart as a Labour achievement, while at the same time, both Polly Toynbee and Labour policy is aggressively pro-abortion. How can they get away with talking about a "surestart for every child" and talking about social justice, while they terminate the lives of 500 children a day? So much for this government being pro-children! Tinkering with literacy rates is nothing in comparison to saving the lives of children from abortion, and improving maternity and neonatal care which studies show is in a shocking state.