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Sure Start was a UK Government area-based initiative, announced in 1998 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, applying primarily in England with slightly different versions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The initiative originated from HM Treasury, with the aim of "giving children the best possible start in life" through improvement of childcare, early education, health and family support, with an emphasis on outreach and community development. Funding was substantial, with £540m allocated for expenditure between 1999 and 2002, £452m of it within England, to set up 250 Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) reaching up to 150,000 children in areas of deprivation. This article focuses on the development of Sure Start in England, where a national longitudinal evaluation known as NESS was set up in 2001.
The UK Government initially pledged to fund Sure Start for 10 years, but in 2003, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the Government's long-term plan to transfer Sure Start into the control of local government by 2005, and create a Sure Start Children's Centre in every community.
Initial research findings from NESS, published in 2005, suggested the impact of SSLPs was not as great as had been hoped. However, by 2010, NESS could identify a significant impact on some of the outcomes set for Sure Start.
Related to the Government's goal of reducing child poverty, the initial districts for Sure Start development were selected "according to the levels of deprivation within their areas" the focus being particularly on disadvantaged areas but open to all families living in the catchment area. Such catchment areas were selected locally by the projects.
Sure Start was overseen by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Work and Pensions. The programme has been described by Tony Blair as "one of New Labour's greatest achievements".
Each project was allowed to develop in its own way depending on the expressed wishes of parents and the guidance of the various organisations heading up each one. Policy on such matters as choosing volunteers and even the services offered were a local level decision.
Sure Start local programmes were opened in waves, Round 1 indicates the first wave of programmes starting 1999. Round 6 represents the final wave of Sure Start local programmes mostly starting in 2003.
The National Evaluation of the programme is ongoing. The latest evaluation, at age three years, showed positive, if modest, effects for all categories of families.
Every Child Matters proposed a switch from Sure Start local programmes to Sure Start Children’s Centres, which would be controlled by local authorities, and would be provided not just in the most disadvantaged areas. In the 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that the Government would provide funding for 2,500 Children's Centres by 2008. This target was later increased to 3,500 children’s centres by 2010. Of the 524 original Sure Start local programmes, most are now Sure Start Children's Centres.
Some Sure Start Local Programmes have become registered Charities and Companies Limited by guarantee. Sure Start Hounslow, a programme in West London, became a company limited by guarantee in 2004 and now delivers a range of services, many through Service Level Agreement with the local authority, not all of which focus entirely on children under five. This development has been one of many routes that Sure Start Local Programmes have taken to ensure sustainability during the "tapering" of the original Sure Start Grant.
In 2005, Norman Glass, one of the original architects of Sure Start wrote an article praising the increased government focus on the early years, but criticising cuts in funding per head; the change from child development to childcare and getting mothers into work; and the shift back to local authority control, rather than being run by boards including parents.
Children's Centres are expected to provide:
A 2007 study by researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Wales published in the British Medical Journal looking at parenting interventions within the Sure Start system in Wales examined 153 parents from socially deprived areas and showed that a course teaching improved parenting skills had great benefits in reducing problem behaviour in young children. Parents were taught to:
The study recommended that this evidence based class, be expanded from Wales to the rest of the UK, making it available for all parents who need it, stating that the Sure Start programme has not yet produced results as good as these in England.
Although early evaluations did not find Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) to have been particularly effective, by 2008 the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) was able to conclude "For the time being, it remains plausible, even if by no means certain, that the differences in findings across the first and second phases of the NESS Impact Study reflect actual changes in the impact of SSLPs resulting from the increasing quality of service provision, greater attention to the hard-to-reach and the move to Children’s Centres, as well as the greater exposure to the programme of children and families in the latest phase of the impact evaluation." In 2010, robust research conducted by NESS demonstrated significant effects of SSLPs on eight of 21 outcomes: two positive outcomes for children (lower BMIs and better physical health), four positive outcomes for mothers and families (more stimulating and less chaotic home environments, less harsh discipline, and greater life satisfaction), and two negative outcomes (more depressive symptoms reported by mothers, and parents less likely to visit schools for planned meetings).
Cuts in funding from central government to local authorities in England led to fears that up to 250 Sure Start centres would close in 2011. Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove has admitted that funding for Sure Start has not been protected, though Children's Minister Sarah Teather said there was enough money available to maintain existing children's centres. A number of local councils announced cuts to their Sure Start budgets, and ministers said they want to refocus the scheme to help the most disadvantaged families.