Sure Start: a fancy new way to police the family

With Britain’s new coalition government ushering in public-sector cuts that will mean ‘years of pain ahead’, Sure Start, the former New Labour government’s flagship policy for children aged 0-5, has come under the microscope.

Hitting back against claims by Labourite mischief-makers that the Conservatives intend to close down Children’s Centres across the country, Tory MPs have reaffirmed their commitment to Sure Start: ‘We want Britain to be the most family-friendly country in Europe. A stronger Sure Start is at the heart of delivering on that vision.’ In May 2010, the UK’s coalition government formally unveiled its plans for Sure Start, which include cutting funding to Sure Start outreach services, but increasing the number of health visitors by 4,200; increasing the scheme’s focus on the neediest families; investigating ways of paying providers by results; and taking Sure Start ‘back to its original purpose of early intervention’.

On one level, the all-party love affair with Sure Start is rather mystifying. On 7 June, The Times (London) published a leading article about the findings of a three-year study, commissioned by the Treasury and carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS found: ‘The large sample results indicate that on average attending early-years education had no impact on any of our outcome measures.’

Noting that ‘achieving nothing has not come cheap’ – Britain currently ‘spends £5billion per annum on early-years provision, more than four times the amount of a decade ago’ – The Times suggested that ‘at a time of public austerity, this looks like a clinching case for closure’. Indeed, the existing evidence on how well Sure Start works, from the dedicated £20million National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) programme at Birkbeck University as well as from other sources (1), has been highly ambivalent on whether the programme is achieving its stated objectives, as has evidence from comparable schemes in the US, Canada and Australia (2).

Paradoxically, however, for all the obsession with evidence-based policy, and the money and energy that have gone into evaluating Sure Start since its inception in 1998, the lack of proof that this expensive and extensive early-intervention programme actually works as intended seems to be considered irrelevant. This echoes the US debate about Head Start, the programme upon which Sure Start is based. As Gray and Francis note in the journal Child: Care, Health and Development:

‘Despite… periodic concerns about quality, Head Start has been a politically popular programme. This may stem from its apparently irreproachable aims of serving poor children, together with its resonance with popular “deficit” theories about the poor and their supposedly substandard parenting and the strength of American belief in the power of education to achieve social reform. All this has been good for Head Start’s survival, but it has made it difficult for those concerned about quality and evaluation to get their concerns onto the political agenda.’ (3)

This powerful statement clarifies a lot about the lack of criticism levelled at Sure Start in the UK. Whether the scheme works or does not work according to the specific outcomes desired by policymakers, its great success has been the extent to which it has managed to transform the social problem of child poverty – poor children – into an individual problem of poor parenting.

What is Sure Start?

One of the core philosophies of New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ was ‘social exclusion’, and Sure Start was put into action soon after the 1997 election to deal with this newly-formulated social problem. The basic premise of social exclusion was that the most significant problem facing families in circumstances of economic deprivation was not their lack of money or employment, but the negative behaviour that they manifested as a result of being disconnected from official agencies and services.

Policies designed to tackle ‘social exclusion’ therefore sought ways to reach the ‘hard to reach’ through therapeutic mechanisms such as education or advice-giving. By a similar token, the aim of Sure Start was to ameliorate the consequences of child poverty by encouraging better parenting and forging relationships between families in the most disadvantaged communities and the state.

Since its inception, the organisation of Sure Start has undergone a number of shifts. It was initially designed around local schemes, which emphasised diversity and parental involvement; it then became more centrally organised through Children’s Centres offering some combination of childcare services, parenting classes, and healthcare.

There have been a number of problems with the scheme. Originally, Sure Start programmes were developed in economically deprived areas, but deliberately not targeted specifically at low-income families: the aim being both to reduce the ‘stigma’ of such interventions, and to encourage, as if by osmosis, the trickle-down effect of good parenting behaviours from middle-class users of Sure Start services. In effect, this meant that users of the Sure Start services tended to be the ‘wrong people’ – those parents and children considered to be less in need of them – while the ‘hard to reach’ continued to find, in the words of NESS researchers, ‘the extra attention of service providers in SSLP areas stressful and intrusive’ (4).

There was also the problem of Sure Start failing to achieve its stated goals: indeed, as NESS found in 2006, the scheme failed to boost pre-schoolers’ development, language and behaviour, and it actually had an ‘adverse impact’ on ‘children from relatively more socially deprived families (teenage mothers, lone parents, workless households)’.

However, these specific problems were not enough to deter policymakers from their belief in the importance of early intervention. The fondness for Sure Start among middle-class users of its services helped to boost its political popularity. Meanwhile, the National Evaluation of Sure Start has produced later findings, from which they conclude that, in fact, ‘children and their families benefited from living in SSLP [Sure Start Local Programme] areas’ (5).

The difference between these and the previous findings, explains the team, could be accounted for by such families having ‘increased exposure to programmes that have become more effective’. This appears to validate the argument put forward by early proponents of Sure Start, that if the government just kept throwing money at the apparently failing programme, it would all come good in the end.

But does it? The problem with the Sure Start debate, such as it is, is that proponents and critics tend to get caught up in an obsession about whether the scheme works or doesn’t work, and therefore whether it is a good or a bad use of public money. The far more significant question relates to how the success or failure of the scheme is measured – and as such, how the problem of poverty has been skilfully reposed as one of parents’ and children’s behaviour.

The 2008 evaluation studied 14 outcomes of children and their families in Sure Start areas, compared to those in ‘similarly deprived’, non-Sure Start areas. These outcomes were: children’s immunisations, accidents, language development, positive and negative social behaviours, and independence; parenting risk; home-learning environment; father’s involvement; maternal smoking, body-mass index, and life satisfaction; family’s service use; and mother’s rating of area.

In other words, all the things that Sure Start attempted to change were those that related to the health and behaviour of poor people (for example, smoking and refusing to access state services), rather than poverty itself.

On the basis of achieving five of those 14 outcomes, the evaluation was able to claim that ‘early interventions can improve the life chances of young children living in deprived areas’. But all the evaluation actually showed was that children in Sure Start areas showed more positive social behaviour and greater independence, while their families showed less negative parenting, provided a better home-learning environment, and used ‘more services for supporting child and family development’.

So the kids in the study seemed a bit better behaved, the parents seemed a bit nicer, and the families were more engaged with the state. One could conclude from this that children have had their ‘life chances’ radically improved. One could equally conclude that families living in Sure Start areas have merely picked up a clearer idea about how to behave in front of researchers.

As Vimpani notes, ultimately the success of early-intervention programmes in ameliorating ‘the long-term outcomes that are the basis of the current political concern’ would ‘take a generation to determine’ (6). In the meantime, £5billion is an awful lot of money to spend on toddler-taming techniques. So what’s the rationale for Sure Start, really?

Risky parents

For social policy to focus on the consequences of poverty rather than its causes is nothing new. Social housing, the National Health Service, state schools, and other trappings of the postwar welfare state were all designed to address the problem of educational and health inequalities by ameliorating some of their worst effects, and giving all children – at least notionally – an equal start in life. Some policy initiatives, such as the grammar school system, explicitly sought to provide a route for children from poor backgrounds to achieve a degree of social mobility: crudely put, bright kids from council estates could use their brains to become middle class.

Of course, none of these social policies succeeded in eradicating poverty, or in providing equality of opportunity. Middle-class kids dominated the grammar schools, and the poor always had more health problems than the rich. But they were at least ‘social policies’, to the degree that they sought to tackle problems caused by an unequal access to wealth and resources.

What passes for social policy today, by contrast, takes the existence of inequalities as a given, immutable fact, and focuses increasingly upon the individual’s capacity for survival. The question has become, not how to eradicate poverty or how to ameliorate its effects on people’s lives, but rather how to encourage individuals to manage their poverty in such a way that they don’t cause trouble or make themselves ill.

In an excellent critique, Karen Clarke describes how this behavioural focus forms the backdrop to Sure Start (7). She quotes a government review of children’s service provision, which distinguishes between ‘distal’ and ‘proximal’ variables as areas for intervention. Distal variables are described as ‘“demographic variables describing major attributes such as income, marital status or age of the mother”’, and proximal variables as things that may be causally related, and have a more direct impact upon the child: for example, the number of books in the home, and therefore the extent to which a parent reads to a child.

The review concluded that intervention should focus on such proximal variables as a means to achieving change. As Clarke notes, one problem with ‘this emphasis on the micro-management of proximal variables’ is that it sidelines any attempt to address deeper-rooted problems. Furthermore:

‘There is a danger of regarding parents as simply another environmental influence, whose behaviour can be broken down into proximal causes which produce particular effects in children, and which with appropriate modification can produce the desired outcomes. Good parenting then comes to be regarded as a question of technique instead of being fundamentally about quality of relationships.’

Sure Start’s mechanistic focus on particular variables and measurable outcomes, as indicated by the National Evaluation, ultimately presents the problem of poverty as one of bad parenting behaviour leading to bad child behaviour. Again, this is a familiar theme to some extent – there is nothing new about society blaming the parents of teenage criminals, for example, or drug addicts. But what is new is the degree to which ‘good parenting’ is so intimately prescribed, to include reading books and behaving ‘positively’, and bad behaviour among toddlers is seen as a serious problem, both in its own terms and a marker for future catastrophe.

Clarke is critical of the way that one of the Sure Start objectives, to reduce the number of children on the child-protection register, ‘implicitly pathologises parents in Sure Start areas by focusing on their dangerousness to children’. In fact, the scheme’s very focus on ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ parenting practices takes the ‘child protection’ element of Sure Start much further than concerns about established forms of child abuse.

In line with other developments in early-years policy – specifically the Every Child Matters framework that now operates in all schools and childcare institutions – the standard produced is that of the optimal child, who is assumed to be constructed by optimal childrearing techniques. Sure Start’s positive ‘outcome’ is the parent who reads to her child, gives her healthy meals and does not shout or smack – and the assumption is that this will lead to an obedient, slim and literate toddler. A deviation from this standard, in the form of ‘negative parenting’, is therefore implicitly seen as a form of abuse.

In this respect, the risk factor to the Sure Start child in the deprived area is not his poverty, because this is a distal variable that cannot be changed. Rather, it is his parent, whose everyday childrearing practices are to be monitored and manipulated until they accord with the desired outcome measure.

Problem children

If Sure Start’s construction of the problem parent is disturbing, the scheme’s construction of the problem child is equally so. Peter Moss notes that Sure Start is a new programme – nonetheless, he argues, ‘in many ways it embodies beliefs that have been influential in social policy for many years’. These include a belief in the children as ‘redemptive agents who can solve problems in society’, and a belief in ‘the unique influence of the early years’, which includes the “‘doctrine of infant determinism’”, the expectation that powerful human technologies applied to children below a certain age will cure social and economic ills’. From these perspectives, he argues, ‘Sure Start is but the latest in 100 years or more of early interventions’ (8).

Moss is right to note that the idea that children can solve the ills of society is not entirely new. But the extent to which policies such as Sure Start have taken this idea forward should not be underestimated. There is a difference between, for example, investing in primary and secondary education as a means to creating the leaders of the future, and micro-managing a mother’s conversation with her baby in case a sharp rebuke may cause incurable damage to the neurons in the infant’s brain.

There is a difference between the childcare gurus of yesteryear promoting the need for discipline as a way of effectively socialising a child, and a policy that sees the manifestation of a toddler tantrum as an outcome of a particular parenting method, which will lead inexorably to crime and antisocial behaviour later in that child’s life.

Above all, there is a difference between a belief in the importance of the early years that promoted the need for a child to be nurtured by her parents outside of formal childcare institutions and relationships, and one that sees the success of the early years in terms of the child’s and the parent’s attachment to the state.

Before Sure Start, the idea that parents were best placed to care for and socialise their pre-school children was qualified by childcare experts, political ideologies and concerns about child abuse, but it remained an organising principle of the early years. Now, the organising principle of the early years is that all everyday parenting practices constitute risk factors, to be formally managed by parent trainers in children’s centres. Children in deprived areas, meanwhile, are constructed from birth as problems to be managed, with the role of policy situated as mediating between the child and the toxic human relationships that surround him.

What next for Sure Start?

The Times neatly summed up the extent to which poverty as a social problem has become naturalised, to the extent that all policymakers can apparently hope to do is to shield poor children from their inner demons and the people around them. ‘Social policy is battling many countervailing forces: genetic inheritance, parental influence, peer groups’, argued its editorial.

The notion that social policy might engage with problems at any level other than that of individuals and interpersonal relations has disappeared from the political agenda, which is why any criticism of Sure Start in media or policy circles tends to stop at the question of whether or not it ‘works’ in its own narrow terms.

For the Lib-Con coalition, the principles behind Sure Start are not up for discussion. The only question is how to make it ‘work’ more effectively, and with less money. Consequently, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the shiny, fun bits of Sure Start that the middle classes loved so much gradually disappear as the money dries up. The coalition’s stated intention to draft in an army of health visitors to focus more directly on ‘the neediest families’ reads to me as though parents living in poverty will find their lives more aggressively managed, by individuals with more official clout.

As such, Sure Start will indeed be taken ‘back to its original purpose of early intervention’, but without the veneer of toys, books and voluntary engagement that made it initially so palatable. Stripped of its hype, Sure Start will be revealed as what it always was: another development in policing the family.

First published by spiked, 22 June 2010.


(1) J Belsky, E Melhuish, J Barnes, AH Leyland, H Romaniuk, ‘Effects of Sure Start local programmes on children and families: early findings from a quasi-experimental, cross sectional study’, British Medical Journal 2006, 332:1476; J Schneider, A Ramsay, SA Lowerson,‘Sure Start graduates: predictors of attainment on starting school’, Child: Care, Health and Development, 32, 4, pp431-440,k 2006; J Belsky, E Melhuish, J Barnes, AH Leyland and the National Evaluation of Sure Start Research Team, ‘Effects of fully-established Sure Start local programmes on 3-year-old children and their families living in England: a quasi-experimental observational study’, The Lancet, Vol 372, 8 November 2008

(2) Graham V Vimpani, ‘Sure Start: Reflections from Down Under’, Child: Care, Health and Development, 28, 4, 281-287, 2002; Paul Ormerod ‘The impact of Sure Start’, Political Quarterly Volume 76 Issue 4, 565-567 2005; R Gray and E Francis, ‘The implications of US experiences with early childhood interventions for the UK Sure Start Programme’, Child: Care, Health and Development, 33, 6, 2007 pp655-663

(3) R Gray and E Francis, ‘The implications of US experiences with early childhood interventions for the UK Sure Start Programme’, Child: Care, Health and Development, 33, 6, 2007, pp655-663

(4) J Belsky, E Melhuish, J Barnes, AH Leyland, H Romaniuk, ‘Effects of Sure Start local programmes on children and families: early findings from a quasi-experimental, cross sectional study’, British Medical Journal 2006

(5) J Belsky, E Melhuish, J Barnes, AH Leyland and the National Evaluation of Sure Start Research Team, ‘Effects of fully-established Sure Start local programmes on 3-year-old children and their families living in England: a quasi-experimental observational study’, The Lancet, Vol 372, 8 November 2008

(6) Graham V Vimpani, ‘Sure Start: Reflections from Down Under’, Child: Care, Health and Development, 28, 4, 2002 pp281-287

(7) Karen Clarke ‘Childhood, parenting and early intervention: A critical examination of the Sure Start national programme’, Critical Social Policy Vol 26 (4), 2006, pp699-721

(8) Peter Moss, ‘Sure Start’, Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 19, No. 5, 2004, pp631-634

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