In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sure Start

  • Introduction
  • The Features of Sure Start Local Programs
  • Program Delivery and Challenges
  • Involving Parents
  • Reaching the Potentially Hard to Reach
  • Evaluating Value for Money
  • Moving Forward: Transformation from SSLPs to (Sure Start) Children’s Centres

Childhood Studies Sure Start
Jacqueline Barnes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0172


Sure Start Local Programs (SSLPs) was one of the flagship policies of the 1997 UK Labour government, committed to reducing inequalities and the impact of disadvantage on children. After the government reviewed evidence and initiatives in the United States, the decision was to focus on early childhood, but no single program was recommended. Instead, a set of conditions for a service were proposed: a focus that was two-generational; non-stigmatizing, multifaceted (i.e., not only health, or education or parent support), locally managed, and culturally appropriate. The programs would be created in the 20 percent most deprived communities and be area based (i.e., services open to all residents of defined areas). Local control was a key principle, with money going directly from central government to local multiagency partnership boards, bypassing local authorities. Partnership boards had to be multiagency and also include local parents and other community members. Thus the ethos was “bottom up” and flexible so that local needs could be addressed. The government’s intention was a ring-fenced (protected, not for any other use) budget (roughly equivalent to £1,250 per annum for each child under four in the area) for ten years. In 1999 a total of £542 million was made available for the next three years. In England 250 SSLPs were planned, each to provide for approximately 800 children under four. Any local group in the identified deprived areas could apply for funding. Guidance was that, following the principles described in this section, the SSLPs should provide support for parents; outreach and home visiting; primary and community health care; support for good quality play, learning, and childcare; and support for people with special needs. Spending between these services and the manner in which they were provided was decided locally. There was a slow start, with only fifty-nine programs approved by 2000, but then fast expansion followed, with funding doubled to be able to support 500 in England by 2003–2004. However, the initiative was not universally welcomed, given that there was no clear blueprint for how a SSLP should operate. At the same time as the expansion, an ambitious national evaluation was funded, but the great diversity among SSLPs posed a particular set of challenges for the researchers. However, in 2005 the policy changed from Sure Start Local Programs to Sure Start Children’s Centres (CCs), which were not area based, with funding going from central government to local authorities rather than directly to the centres, and available as a mainstream service to all residents, although with less generous funding and not ring-fenced. Thus Sure Start is a somewhat elusive concept, illustrated by the research in this article.

The Features of Sure Start Local Programs

SSLPs were a political, not scientific, invention. Local organizations applied for the generous funding but with no clear idea about what should be provided, or how objectives and targets could be achieved. Norman Glass was the Treasury official given the task of working out how to reduce the impact of disadvantage on children; he in essence created the concept of SSLPs and sets out his vision clearly in Glass 1999. Helen Roberts was not connected with the program’s management but writes in Roberts 2000 as one trying to make sense of how Glass’s vision should be carried out in practice. Naomi Eisenstadt was appointed to direct the initiative. and Eisenstadt 2002 sets out her vision for what it would mean in practice. Eisenstadt 2011 gives even more details about what the initiative hoped to achieve, presenting a rich account of the challenges—political, practical, theoretical, financial—that she encountered over the time of her stewardship of SSLPs from its inception in 2000 until 2008. Eisenstadt 2011 is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the birth, growth, and more recent decline of Sure Start, which is covered in more detail in Moving Forward: Transformation from SSLPs to (Sure Start) Children’s Centres, the final section of this bibliography. Given the political origins of SSLPs, brainchild of a Treasury official rather than child development experts or service delivery professionals, there has been debate about how SSLPs should be managed and what they should offer. Clarke 2006 raises the notion that the debate risked sliding into a moral discourse of social exclusion, blaming parents for poor outcomes. Anning and Hall 2008 analyzes the progress of children’s services, highlighting both the need for joined-up working and for evidence-based practice. Both were intended to be part of SSLPs, though the latter was not clearly achieved. Melhuish and Hall 2007 recaps the policy background of SSLPs and identifies ways that the program should benefit children by integrating health and social care. In addition to the national evaluation, each local program was required to spend 5 percent of its budget on local evaluation work. Bagley, et al. 2004 is one of these evaluations. Following a detailed account of the government’s social exclusion agenda, the authors of Bagley, et al. 2004 focus on the research they conducted, specifically on one of the key aspects of SSLPs, the requirement for interagency working. They provide findings from semi-structured interviews with thirty-two members of an interdisciplinary team delivering the program with illuminating quotations, interpreted within a social capital framework.

  • Anning, Angela, and David Hall. “What Was Sure Start and Why Did It Matter?” In Improving Services for Young Children: From Sure Start to Children’s Centres. Edited by Angela Anning and Mog Ball, 3–15. London: SAGE, 2008.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446216620.n1

    Good description of the politics behind SSLPs, other initiatives and legislation directed at young children, and reasons for the focus on coordination of cross-government departments. Child protection was a particular issue that SSLPs hoped to improve through liaison between social services and other agencies.

  • Bagley, Carl, Clare L. Ackerley, and Julie Rattray. “Documents and Debates Social Exclusion, Sure Start and Organizational Social Capital: Evaluating Inter‐Disciplinary Multi‐Agency Working in an Education and Health Work Programme.” Journal of Education Policy 19 (2004): 595–607.

    DOI: 10.1080/0268093042000269162

    Documents and debates social exclusion, Sure Start, and joined-up working: evaluating interdisciplinary multiagencies working in an education and health work program. Presents findings from interviews with teams delivering the program and analysis of program attendance, conducted as part of a local evaluation, outlining difficulties and how they were overcome.

  • Clarke, Karen. “Childhood, Parenting and Early Intervention: A Critical Examination of the Sure Start National Programme.” Critical Social Policy 26 (2006): 699–721.

    DOI: 10.1177/0261018306068470

    Sets Sure Start in the context of previous policies, social exclusion theory, and the contradictions in New Labour’s social policy attempting to eradicate child poverty. Provides substantial background context, describing how education became the most influential government department, with a focus on early education and parenting skills.

  • Eisenstadt, Naomi. “Sure Start: Key Principles and Ethos.” Child: Care, Health and Development 28 (2002): 3–4.

    DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2214.2002.00249.x

    By the director of the central government Sure Start Unit, repeats key principles but with more practical detail, e.g., the importance of agencies sharing information. Issues surrounding ways to provide access to the hard to reach are discussed, while programs still retainthe area-based, “open to all” ethos. The importance of addressing local needs is highlighted.

  • Eisenstadt, Naomi. Providing a Sure Star: How Government Discovered Early Childhood. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847427304.001.0001

    After being in overall charge of Sure Start, the author provides an insider’s view about more than a decade of the program’s development and evolution. Full details of the program from its earliest days, with fascinating insights into the way the different agendas of politicians, academics, and managers of children’s services were faced.

  • Glass, Norman. “Sure Start: The Development of an Early Intervention Programme for Young Children in the United Kingdom.” Children & Society 13 (1999): 257–264.

    DOI: 10.1002/chi569

    By the prime mover who developed the concept of Sure Start, gives details of the origins of Sure Start, the “joined-up government” policy behind SSLPs, and various meetings held to refine the ideas. Sets out in detail the aims of the program, details other “area-based” initiatives, and describes the evaluation strategy.

  • Melhuish, Edward, and David Hall. “The Policy Background to Sure Start.” In The National Evaluation of Sure Start: Does Area-Based Early Intervention Work? Edited by Jay Belsky, Jacqueline Barnes, and Edward Melhuish, 3–21. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861349507.003.0001

    Detailed summary of the government processes that led to SSLPs, with a particular focus on early intervention as it relates to child health. Critiques the concept of local control over program content. Documents the early stages of the program and how central government policyinteracted with the national evaluation.

  • Roberts, Helen. “What Is Sure Start?” Archives of Disease in Childhood 82 (2000): 435–437.

    DOI: 10.1136/adc.82.6.435

    Reiterates much of the detail in Glass 1999, but with a more critical outsider’s eye. Questions the idea of working at the local-area level, points out that many disadvantaged children will be overlooked questions the specific targets assigned to the overarching objectives, but overall supports the idea of SSLPs.

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