A Sure Start for the therapeutic state


The UK government really cares about children. So much so that it has spent more than £3billion over four years to make parents in deprived areas give their children ‘warmer parenting’, relying less on smacking and criticism and more on talking and affection (1). Whatever else you say about the politics of behaviour, it doesn’t come cheap.

The monetary cost of ‘warmer parenting’ was revealed last week, in a leaked evaluation report of the government’s flagship ‘Sure Start’ initiative. On 13 September, the Guardian reported on the first major evaluation of the Sure Start scheme for deprived families, which was held back from publication in July and is due to be published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in October. The academics involved in the £20million evaluation, based at Birkbeck University in London, have found the scheme to be a spectacular failure so far, on almost every count.

Sure Start failed to boost pre-schoolers’ development, language and behaviour, and it made the children of teenage mothers even worse than their non-Sure Start peers. The only positive finding was that Sure Start mothers demonstrated ‘warmer parenting’ than the control group: families in deprived areas where Sure Start schemes do not yet operate.

Right-leaning critics of the scheme, such as Melanie Phillips and Minette Marrin (2), have had a field day with these findings, claiming that they show the government is tearing apart the family for no discernible benefit. Unfortunately for them, the DfES managed to get its riposte in early, as it was Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who ‘obtained’ the findings, and set the scene for the ensuing debate on the day the findings were reported.

In a comment piece headlined ‘We must hold our nerve and support deprived children’ (3), Toynbee defended the scheme on the grounds that a) the evaluation did not compare children actually in Sure Start programmes, only those living in the area, many of whom had no contact with it; b) the US Head Start scheme for deprived youngsters, which inspired Sure Start, showed no improvement until the kids reached adolescence; c) the fact that Sure Start mothers demonstrated ‘warmer parenting’ ‘may prove vital in the long run’; and d) these things are really difficult to evaluate anyway. Toynbee concluded that Sure Start’s lack of demonstrable success so far only indicates how important the programme is, and the need for greater government investment.

As an example of having it both ways, Toynbee’s commentary is worthy of a sociological study in its own right. How can an evaluation that fails to find any improvement in Sure Start children be invalid because it doesn’t consider whether they are in the scheme or not, yet valid when it finds a positive result (‘warmer parenting’)? No doubt short-term improvements in young children’s development are very difficult to measure, but surely this is more tangible than the ‘warmth’ of parenting styles? How does the fact that a scheme is failing to achieve its stated outcomes qualify it as a success that just needs more money?

In their own way, however, Toynbee’s convolutions hit the nail on the head. For when it comes to Sure Start, what counts is not the outcome but the process. Sure Start’s aim is not to transform the fortunes of poor children: how could it, when the one solution to child poverty – giving parents more money – is conspicuously absent in its approach? Its aim is gradually to transform the relationship between the family and the state. In this sense, it doesn’t matter what the evaluators find out about child development; it is the evaluation itself that is important.

Sure Start was set up in 2001 to provide support for children in deprived areas, through a combination of childcare, literacy and parenting classes, health advice and ‘drop-ins’ (advertised in Tottenham, where I live, as ‘drop-in’s’). True to the form of Blairite initiatives, it is very difficult to pin down exactly what Sure Start is. As parents struggling to find and pay for a full-time nursery place for their child will know, Sure Start is certainly not a system of universal, state-sponsored childcare. The government’s idea was that the scheme would involve parents, voluntary groups, and local authorities working alongside one another, so that every Sure Start project would be different.

But not that different. At a fundamental level, every Sure Start project represents the therapeutic state reaching out to control parental behaviour, and every one is premised on a fundamental distrust of parents.

‘Sure Start is the government programme to deliver the best start in life for every child’, explains the website (4). ‘We bring together, [sic] early education, childcare, health and family support.’ It continues:

‘Sure Start is a government programme which aims to achieve better outcomes for children, parents and communities by:

  • increasing the availability of childcare for all children;
  • improving health and emotional development for [sic] young children;
  • supporting parents as parents and in their aspirations towards employment.

‘We will achieve our aims by:

  • helping services development in disadvantaged areas alongside financial help for parents to afford childcare;
  • rolling out the principles driving the Sure Start approach to all services for children and parents.’

This typically vacuous (and grammatically challenged) explanation as to what the scheme is contains a number of key phrases. ‘Sure Start is a government programme’ – however many pretensions it has in the direction of spontaneous parental involvement and multi-agency working, it is clearly directed by the state. It wants to improve the ‘health and emotional development’ of young children but it wants to improve the parents as well: by ‘supporting parents as parents’ (read: helping parents to bring their kids up better) and supporting them ‘in their aspirations towards employment’ (getting the parents off the dole and the kids under the wing of the state).

And it is an experimental scheme. Through developing a certain relationship with parents and pre-schoolers in deprived areas, the therapeutic state is self-consciously attempting to gain a foothold for developing a similar relationship with the rest of society: ‘rolling out the principles driving the Sure Start approach to all services for children and parents.’

When the experimental nature of Sure Start is considered, it helps make some sense as to why the government would spend £20million on an evaluation scheme that clearly would, in the short term, blow up in its face. In the very process of evaluating the project, the state is able to legitimise its involvement in the intimate dynamics of family life, through according the impact of Sure Start upon ‘Parent and Family’ as much weight as its impact on ‘child development’.

A previous report by the Birkbeck team, published in June 2004 (5), provides a table in which the following indicators of ‘Parent and Family’ are given: Malaise score, Father’s involvement, Home Learning environment, Parent/child conflict, Parent/child closeness, Self-esteem score, Home chaos score, Responsivity, Acceptance, Discipline score, Support scores – help found, Support scores inc. no help, Scores for service use. On all bar one of these indicators, the difference between Sure Start areas and soon-to-be Sure Start comparison areas was listed as non-significant. The one indicator that did show a very minor difference (less than 0.01) was ‘Acceptance’ – the ‘warmer parenting’ that has been so much vaunted in the new, unpublished report.

By holding all these ill-defined aspects of family life and parenting styles up to scrutiny, and attempting to measure the impact of a government initiative upon them, the Sure Start evaluation process is raising a flag to show just how far the government is prepared to go in monitoring and intervening in the most intimate dynamics of family life. Mothers are examined for such things as: ‘Malaise: depression measure: jittery, tired, depressed (bad for parenting and child development)’; ‘Discipline: frequency of (reported) swearing, threatening, smacking, slapping child’; and ‘Home chaos: disorganised, noisy, lacking regular routine’. It is assumed that all these problems are endemic in normal families, and that the state has a right to log and score them against a behavioural checklist.

A further assumption is that government intervention can, and indeed should, reduce these negative variables and increase positive ones such as: ‘Self-esteem: positive feelings about self (good for parenting and child development’; ‘Responsivity: observations of mother praising, responding, showing affection’; ‘Parent/child closeness: affectionate relationship, child seeks comfort, child shares feelings’; and ‘Father’s involvement: looks after, feeds, plays with child (as reported by mother)’.

That the state thinks it can prescribe this degree of emotional and behavioural correctness in our everyday interactions with our own children is a profound insult to parents, and will do nothing to improve the life chances of children born into poverty. But then, ameliorating child poverty is not the aim of this scheme. The Sure Start project is using poor families as guinea pigs and sociologists as pawns to broker a new relationship between the therapeutic state and the vulnerable, dependent family, whose privacy and autonomy are quitely eroded under the banner of ‘supporting parents as parents’.

Melanie Phillips is right to attack Sure Start for its patronising assumption that ‘salaried professionals know better than inadequate parents how to bring up their children and that state-financed child-care and nursery provision turn problem infants into model citizens’. She is also right to draw attention to the insidious, thought-controlling aspect of Sure Start schemes, where government guidance to ‘early years’ officers ‘says they must “offset the process whereby children may learn to be racially prejudiced at an early age” by making sure children “unlearn any negative attitudes and behaviour they have already learnt”’ (6).

But Phillips is wrong to argue that the unpublished Birkbeck report means that New Labour’s flagship project ‘stands exposed as a total waste of money’. From the point of view of a therapeutic state determined to get its tentacles into the most personal aspects of our lives, the £3billion scheme and the £20million evaluation is money well spent indeed.

First published by spiked, 22 September 2005.


(1) Doubts over value of £3bn Sure Start, Lucy Ward, Guardian, 13 September 2005
(2) A less than sure start, Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 14 September 2005; ‘Pity the poor children left to Blair’s care’, Minette Marrin, Sunday Times, 18 September 2005
(3) We must hold our nerve and support deprived children, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 13 September 2005
(4) Sure Start website
(5) The impact of Sure Start local programmes on child development and family functioning: a report on preliminary findings, National Evaluation of Sure Start Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, June 2004
(6) A less than sure start, Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 14 September 2005

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