Holding our nerve: what the Sure Start findings tell us about how to deliver effective early intervention

Holding our nerve: what the Sure Start findings tell us about how to deliver effective early intervention

Donna Molloy, Deputy Chief Executive, unpacks findings published today by Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), showing the short and medium-term impacts of Sure Start on children’s educational outcomes – and what we should learn from this when working with the next government to ensure children receive targeted, evidence-based early intervention.

We have known for a long time that inequalities in children’s development open up early in their lives. Well targeted and effective family support at an early stage can help reduce income-related learning gaps and improve children’s outcomes across a range of areas. The findings published today by Institute for Fiscal Studies are heartening, adding to an existing evidence base showing us that effective early intervention can have a transformative impact on children’s lives. Whilst this is something we know from evaluations of numerous individual interventions, it is great to see this reinforced today by the evidence from the local systems of support created by the early Sure Start Local Programmes.

These findings are timely, amidst ongoing interest in national family support programmes to support children’s outcomes, and a policy focus on Family Hubs and Start for Life. What comes next must draw on lessons from Sure Start as well as those from the last few years of policy on Family Hubs, and take the best from both models to ensure children and families have access to the support they need.

Three things stand out from today’s findings that tell us how we can achieve the most impact for children and families:

  1. Carefully designed and adequately funded family support 

It should go without saying that, in order to be effective, any reform to the existing system must have adequate investment at its heart. The strongest evidence of positive outcomes was in the earliest rollout of Sure Start Local Programmes between 1999 and 2003, which had higher levels of investment than later iterations.

It is also crucial that there is a focus on evidence-based support. There has not always been enough attention on this and both Sure Start and Family Hubs could perhaps have been more firmly rooted in interventions shown, through evidence, to be effective. We should not be looking to reinvent the wheel and we do not need to constantly develop new service models – where we have good evidence about interventions or activities that improve outcomes, we should be using these. Whilst we will need some flexibility to enable local areas to deliver what families want and need, we need to balance this with making sure we are using the strongest approaches.  

2. Targeted help for disadvantaged families   

IFS’ analysis found much larger impacts for those from the poorest and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. 

Again, these findings match with what we already know from wider evidence. Time and time again, we see that the strongest effects come from programmes that are clearly targeted to a specific population and rationale, whilst generic and universal programmes which attempt to achieve multiple outcomes for a broad, diverse group, often do not make a difference.

Going forward we would like to see a clear focus on targeting support for disadvantaged families. This doesn’t exclude the provision of some open access services but within this it is important to retain a clear focus on engaging and building relationships with those who may need support the most.  

3. Longer term evaluation

We welcome the IFS’s ambition in tracking long-term policy outcomes from such a flagship policy, some two decades later. We don’t do this enough and too often face a dearth of the long term evaluation needed to inform policy.  Often, we don’t evaluate at all, and if we do, we often only look at short term effects. But making decisions about policy and services without this long-term evidence means we are often operating in the dark.

A future model for success

Parenting, and the parent-child relationship, is one of the most important influences on children’s development. The next government should strengthen access to high-quality local family support services which start in maternity and run throughout childhood and into adolescence. This ambition requires policy clarity, and a national vision for children’s centres and family hubs as part of early childhood services.

Within this it is important that we be clear about sufficient funding as a necessary condition for change. Any new vision must reflect the current context of increased complexity and overstretched services. And whatever the next model is, it’s the services within that model, and whether they are likely to improve outcomes, that will determine whether it is successful.

We must ensure this national vision is shared across all government, with a single vehicle for supporting families and early childhood development. It has been interesting to see the structure and funding of Family Hubs facilitate cross-government integration – an area where, at times, SureStart could fall short. 

And ultimately, we need to hold our nerve. One reflection on the last two decades of policy initiatives in this space is that we often have the right ambitions or try to do the right things, but how we go about achieving these ambitions can be insufficient. Estelle Morris has commented that often, policy-makers discard promising initiatives due to budget constraints, and the whole cycle has to start again. This resonates: we don’t always stay the course in terms of setting a vision, investing in what is shown to make a difference, evaluating and then, crucially, acting on results. But on the back of these findings and our existing knowledge about Family Hubs, the next government has an opportunity to get this right. It is an opportunity that must be fully seized to ensure we are providing children and families with the support that can transform their lives for the better.

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