The National Audit Office has once again queried whether Sure Start Children’s Centres provide good value for money. The Centres exist to reach the most disadvantaged families, but the NAO reports that on average centres succeed in allocating just 38 staff hours per week on outreach (you can read the full report here; it opens as a PDF).
It is tempting to respond by disputing these findings or wondering how robust they are. Perhaps it is wiser to accept the fact that targeted outreach work is something which is extremely difficult to do.
The pressures are contradictory. On the one hand, there is the desire to make the centres places that families want to come and use. Services like Stay and Play, relaxation and pampering, and respite crèches for tired parents are all popular, and to that extent they are worthwhile. But the evidence that they make any significant difference to the lives of young children is not easy to come by.
More targeted services, involving outreach and home visiting, may seem to have a better chance of engaging with the so-called “hard to reach” families. But there is always the danger of coming across as rather unappealing; exactly what families are trying to stay out of the reach of. Parents do not want to be lectured, and made to feel like hopeless school children all over again. Family support services which focus on multiagency assessment and planning can feel just like traditional social services.
This is not to say that outreach services cannot be shaped and run so that they are experienced more positively. They can be: there is some fine practice. But it is hard to do, it is still quite experimental, and it is under-researched. For example, I doubt that any new medical intervention on the scale of Children’s Centres would even be proposed without a great deal more formal experimentation, piloting and evaluation.
The danger is that because so much money has been put into Children’s Centres, we feel under crushing pressure to demonstrate the impact. We could end up in a dizzying spiral of activity and recording. We would then become steadily de-professionalized, working away merely to generate data to show we are doing a good job. Instead, we should be stopping and thinking, as well as planning and doing. We need to show outcomes, but we also need to think about whether we are acting in the best interests of children and families, being ethical, and being responsible.
First published in Nursery World