Can we be sure it works?
In recent months there has been a rash of questions from Labour MPs about the Government's Sure Start programme, which is meant to improve the life chances of children in deprived areas. There has been a striking similarity to the format of these questions.
"To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills if she will make a statement on the effects of the Sure Start programme in the constituency of Wellingborough."
"To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what assessment she has made of the effects of the Sure Start programme in Milton Keynes."
"To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills if she will make a statement on Sure Start funding in Morecambe and Lunesdale."
The answers, from the children's minister Margaret Hodge, have also been strikingly similar: "The Dover Sure Start local programme has been performing very well since it started in September 2000, providing supportto around 817 children and their families," begins a typical example.
In the run-up to a general election it is standard procedure for Labour MPs to seek information on the results of popular and successful policies in their areas to provide ammunition for their forthcoming campaigns. And Sure Start, as most people know, is just such a policy.
Or is it? The truth is that despite glowing praise from almost everyone concerned, from the Prime Minister right through to the council estate parents who have benefited, there is little evidence that Sure Start has met any of its original targets.
To begin at the beginning, Sure Start was announced in a blaze of political optimism in July 1998. Its original aim, as explained by the then Education Secretary David Blunkett and the health minister Tessa Jowell, was to bring together health, education and childcare agencies to tackle social exclusion among the under-fives.
Aimed initially at 125,000 children in some of the nation's most deprived areas, the programme ensured that all families received a visit from Sure Start in the first three months of their child's life. There would be 250 children's centres offering childcare as well as literacy classes for parents, advice on smoking in pregnancy and early intervention on behavioural or learning difficulties.
From around the country, the plaudits began to roll in. Parents reported the programme and its staff had changed their lives. Staff spoke of the inspirational work they had been able to do under this visionary scheme.
Encouraged by this response, the politicians took up the baton and pumped more money into their flagship programme. By December 2003 there were 524 local Sure Start programmes, and funding rose from an initial pound;56 million in 2000-01 to pound;216m in 2002-03. Then came the real explosion.
Rolling the programme's funding together with nursery education and childcare, the Government announced a further massive funding boost.
There would be 3,500 children's centres, covering the whole country, by 2010, Gordon Brown announced in his pre-budget report last December.
The full cost was not an-nounced, but a massive pound;1.8 billion was set aside to cover the centres, nursery education and childcare in 2007-08. In raw terms, that is not far short of four times the total spent on those three services in 2001-02.
And on what evidence has this massive spending commitment been made? Little more than the anecdotal, it seems.
A major national evaluation of Sure Start, run from Birkbeck college in London, has not yet produced its full report on the first two years of the programme. It will do so in July.
But smaller-scale reports from the evaluation, along with the Department for Education and Skills' own figures, show a far from optimistic picture.
Four clear targets were set for the first stage of the programme, up to 2004: to reduce re-registrations on the child protection register by 20 per cent; to cut language difficulties among four-year-olds by 5 per cent; to reduce smoking in pregnancy by 10 per cent; and to reduce the proportion of under-threes in workless households by 12 per cent.
On the first of those, child protection, the DfES said in its 2004 annual report that it believed it might have hit its target. However, it admitted that numbers involved had been extremely low - typically one child or none in each programme - suggesting they could not be reliably assessed.
And the National Evaluation of Sure Start reported that social services activity relating to child protection actually went up in Sure Start areas.
The most likely explanation for this, it said, was the programme had uncovered unmet need.
A similar phenomenon seems to have affected the second target, relating to speech and language problems. The national evaluation found the proportion of children with special needs rose significantly in Sure Start areas, while dropping in the rest of England.
The DfES says it cannot assess this target because it has no relevant data, but estimates the proportion of children with language difficulties in Sure Start areas has dropped by just 1 per cent, four points less that its target.
On smoking in pregnancy, the DfES was able to produce clear figures - though again based on only a small sample, mainly from Sure Start programmes that had targeted smoking. These showed the proportion of expectant mothers continuing to smoke had dropped by 6 per cent - four points short of the target.
The final target, to reduce the number of children in workless households by 12 per cent by 2004, has almost certainly been missed. The DfES reported that it fell by just 1.3 per cent between 2001 and 2003.
And the national evaluation reported that take-up of employment and training activities linked to the programmes was low. Indeed, it said, mothers in Sure Start areas tended to feel strongly that they wanted to stay at home until their children were at school.
However, the evaluation team does not believe its evidence so far shows Sure Start to be a failure.
Professor Jacqueline Barnes, director of the team's local community context evaluation, said it was too early to say whether or not the programme had been a success.
She said information systems were not available fully to assess some of the targets. But in any case, a programme of this sort was bound to take a long time to show a measurable effect.
"We can't say anything about whether this worked or not, because the information isn't out there yet," she said. "It would be crazy to say it has failed, because these preliminary targets which were created in haste cannot be documented."
But the fact remains that on the available evidence, those targets do not appear to have been met. And what does a sensible government do when its programmes miss their targets? It changes the targets.
So from this year, Sure Start will have just two main targets: to improve children's social, emotional and communication skills, and to increase the availability and take-up of childcare.
According to one of the original architects of the scheme, Norman Glass, the Government's decision to change the nature of Sure Start, bringing it under the aegis of local authorities, amounts to little less than its abolition.
Mr Glass, who as a Treasury official was a key player in developing the scheme, is now chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research.
"What started off as a family support programme for parents in deprived areas has become a programme in which the important thing is to get people back into work, with a focus on childcare services and employability," he said.
"I think it is a pre-emptive move, so that if the forthcoming evaluation results show no evidence of an effect, the DfES can say it has taken the best of Sure Start and cut back on the things that aren't proven."