A UK Government initiative originating in
the Treasury - described by Tony Blair
as being one of New Labour’s greatest
The scheme was officially launched in 1998, and immediate
parallels were drawn with President Johnson’s Head Start
programme in the United States and its equivalent in
Australia. It was also very similar to the Canadian province
of Ontario’s Early Years Plan.
The project was overseen by the Department for Children,
Schools, and Families, in combination with the Department
for Work and Pensions.
SureStart local programmes were opened in a series of
rounds, with Round 1 beginning in 1999, and Round 6 – the
last – starting in 2003.
The following comments have been
selected on the basis that they provide you
with insight into the complexities of a)
arriving at some final judgement of the
scheme’s effectiveness, and b) identifying
‘pressure’ points were an economic
critique similar in spirit to Mitchell’s can
begin. The key enabling legislation is the
2004 Children’s Act.
The aim of this initiative was to give children the best
possible start in life. Funds and other forms of intervention
were to be coordinated locally so as to improve childcare,
early education, child health, and the various forms of family
support. The emphasis was to be on ‘outreach’ and
The programme was designed to cover the needs of
families from conception through to a point when the
children were four years old. These aims were extended
subsequently through a combination of Government
announcement and tacit policy change so as to create a
context for additional and unspecified forms of support up to
the age of fourteen – or sixteen in the case of children with
The scheme’s principal aim was to alleviate the
consequences of child poverty. As a result, those UK districts
identified in the first tranche of funding were selected
according to an index of deprivation drawn up by H. M.
Treasury. But although deprived areas were identified
centrally, the facilities offered by each SureStart centre were
open to all families living within the centre’s self-defined
catchment area, i.e., there was no means testing.
Each project was initially given considerable autonomy. The
intention was for them to be responsive to the wishes of
parents and the guidance of the various local organisations
involved in each centre’s co-ordination. Local level decision-
making was expected to dominate the identification, not only
of policy, but also of the volunteers to be employed and the
services to be provided.
H. M. Government’s Green Paper, Every Child Matters, published in
2003, argued for a switch away from local programmes towards a system
having much greater local authority control; the revised centres were to
be called SureStart Children’s Centres. The location of these would no
longer be restricted to the most deprived areas of the country.
Of the 524 SureStart centres that were operating when this proposal was
implemented, most accepted the thrust of the reform and became
SureStart Children’s Centre’s, and the Labour Government’s stated aim
at the time was to have 3,500 such centres in place by 2010.
In 2005, one of the original designers of the SureStart programme,
Norman Glass, saw fit to write an article in the Guardian praising the
Labour Government’s continued focus on the significance of the early
years, but also deploring the changes being made. He argued that by
cutting the funding made available to each child, by shifting the emphasis
of intervention from child development to child care, by stressing the
importance of getting mothers back into work, and by taking control away
from the centres, they were letting economics once again dominate the
life chances of the most deprived children.
The revised ‘children’s centres’ were to provide:-
In the 30% most disadvantaged areas within the scheme integrated
learning and childcare for a minimum of 10 hours a day, five days a
week, 48 weeks a year; and support for a childminder network.
In the 70% least disadvantaged areas, where the centre decided not
to make any early years provision, drop-in activity sessions for children,
such as stay-and-play.
Family support, including advice and support on parenting,
information about the local services available, and access to specialist
services including parental outreach.
Child and Family Health Services, such as antenatal and postnatal
support, information and guidance on breast-feeding, child health and
nutrition, and also smoking cessation support, speech and language
therapy, and other specialist services.
Links with Jobcentre Plus to encourage and support parents and
carers who wish to consider training and employment.
Even when SureStart was first introduced, it was stressed
that its funding would eventually come to an end; and the
‘tapering’ of centre funding had began before the fall of the
Labour Government. Various responses to this threat to
centre survival were made, including absorption by the
district council, registering the centres as charities, and
creating commercial organisations capable of entering into
service level agreements with local authorities (and
perhaps providing support for children over four years of
age). It is therefore extremely difficult to know what to
make of any evaluations. Even the original SureStart
centres were highly variable because of their local
character, and their subsequent evolution has not made the
task of comparing like with like any easier.
From an economic perspective the issue is not
simply value for money, but the extent to which
these centres have contributed to greater social
equity and the improvement of life chances for
the most deprived children. However, the issue
of effectiveness should not simply be restricted to
the relative success or failure of one or other
centre design. You will need to take a wider view
and ask yourself if the policy as a whole attacks
the root causes of social inequality, or simply
papers over the cracks in society.
Published Evaluations to Consider –
(Nearly all of these exist as e-documents and have also been briefly covered
by papers, journals, and TV reports.)
The National Evaluation of the project continued until the recent change of
government. The general finding was that there were positive, albeit modest,
improvements in the lives of all family categories included.
A 2007 study published in the British Medical Journal looking at SureStart
interventions in Wales claimed that courses teaching parenting skills had
reduced the incidence of problem behaviour in the children concerned.
A University of Durham study concluded that SureStart in England was
ineffective; there were no observable improvements in schooling outcomes.
And so on – the e-journal/paper links highlight further problems. As indicated
in the previous slide, you need to keep your eyes on the ball of social equity in
order to avoid being sucked into the uncertainties of each study – most do not
really ask hard questions about the centres so you may end up having to rely
on dear old Marx and Engels themselves! An alternative is to investigate the
early English socialists – utopians, utilitarians, and Christians – you could do a
lot worse than starting with Robert Owen’s factory schools.