SURE START will not be effective until it begins to focus more on getting parents into work, a study suggests. The Government's multi- agency programme aimed at providing high-quality childcare and healthcare and support for parents has been criticised in previous studies because they say it has failed to make any noticeable improvements in children's skills.
But the new study from Capacity, a think tank funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, has found that the most successful centres were those that gave priority to tackling poverty.
Margaret Lochrie, director of Capacity, said: "These centres were very much explicitly addressing poverty. It is well established that high quality education and childcare is useful, but it does not bring about fundamental change in people's lives. Unless the centres support economic wellbeing, they are only dealing with the symptoms of poverty, not the root cause."
The study of four such centres found they had highly structured campaigns to contact those families that are the most difficult to reach. The centres gave support to parents with personalised plans and went beyond the Government's minimum requirements.
"Sure Start was conceived with the aim of helping to reduce poverty," the study said. "If it is to achieve its aim, support for parents to gain employment or to move into better paid work must have a higher priority and children's centres will need to ensure that they have effective links, not only with Jobcentre Plus but with employers and training providers."
Researchers from Durham University found that the literacy and numeracy skills of children in 124 schools stayed much the same over five years, despite the introduction of the programme, although they said they had no data on how many children had been involved.
The first large-scale study of Sure Start, published two years ago, found the most disadvantaged groups fared worse in Sure Start areas than similar parents elsewhere, although the relatively less deprived children scored higher for verbal ability and parents were warmer towards their children.
Following research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which said that Labour policies had not narrowed the gap between achievement between poor and well off families, Ed Balls, the Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, said that Sure Start was a vital component in tackling poverty.
The Government announced that pound;4 billion will be spent on the programme over the next three years. Some of this money will be used to employ outreach workers.
Sure Start began in 1999 with around 500 children's centres set up in England's most deprived areas.
Each centre has to offer childcare and early learning, child and family health services, parental outreach, family support service, a base for childminder network and links with Jobcentre Plus.
Since then the programme has expanded. There are now 1,250 children's centres and the aim is to have 3,500 by 2010.