Friday, 31 August 2007

What's gone wrong with Sure Start?

More bad news about early education and childcare. The £21 billion spent since 1997 has had no impact - according to researchers at Durham University.

How could so much money be spent, with nothing to show?

1. The research looked for the wrong things. I know that this is always the first response to bad news - either blame the researchers, or call for more research. The researchers were looking for evidence that children knew more about numbers, shapes, letters etc. These are not necessarily indicative that a child has had a good quality early years education.

The best long-term research into the impact of early years education remains, in my opinion, the Perry Pre-School Project in the US. It is quite well known that this showed how effective early childhood education could have surprisingly long-term benefits. Aged 40, there are significant differences between those who attended the project, and those who didn't. The research was carefully designed and controlled.

But Perry also shows one or two other interesting things. Firstly, for the children who attended, no benefit was shown for several years after their attendance. Secondly, the children who attended a pre-school that offered a "programmed learning" approach - based on the acquisition of those very number, shape and letter concepts that the Durham researchers was looking at - did show a significant improvement early on in their schooling.

But this early benefit "washed out" very quickly.

Good early years education is not concerned with learning a pre-determined set of skills and knowledge of letters, numbers, shapes etc.

It is more about the development of the child's capacity to think, to work and live co-operatively, to persevere through difficulties.

The Durham researchers were looking for the wrong things.

2. The £21 billion covers a lot of different initiatives - not just early education.

There has been an expansion of childcare - often, sad to say, low quality, low-cost childcare which has few (if any) benefits for children.

There are also the the local Sure Start programmes. I understand that some of these were good.

But all the ones I saw were incredibly wasteful. Endless committee meetings deciding, in the end, on ever more extravagant fun days with free goodie bags, trips to the seaside and fuzzy alternative healthcare approaches.

Ever-growing administration teams. Unfocused outreach work with families.

A keen interest in firing up conflicts. A lack of interest in critical self-examination.

Some good work by committed staff and volunteers, all mixed up with wasteful and silly schemes.

From what I saw, it was an inexcusable waste of money. I have been told there were many good Sure Start programmes, so perhaps I was just unlucky to see only bad ones. It struck me that where a programme had round about £1 million to spend on additional services for maybe 1000 children a year, it would have been better just to have given each family some kind of voucher which they could have used to pay towards a nursery place, buy children's furniture or equipment, or make essential home improvements.

But, back to Durham University: I think the best response to their research is to ignore it.

Meanwhile, the government needs to get more of a grip on the money that's being wasted on the early years. There should be a concerted effort to maintain the best quality provision - that's local authority nursery schools, and Children's Centres based on the nursery school model. The places with qualified teachers and qualified nursery nurses.

The places which are closing down all round the country.