Good intentions

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Sure Start, the Government's much vaunted programme for pre-school children and their families, has brought more problems than benefits, says Oliver James

Labour's Sure Start programme has been an inglorious tale. Heavily trailed as an electoral unique selling point before 1997, the plan was to reproduce the best features of the American Head Start scheme, proven to break cycles of deprivation and educational failure.

Sadly, as Norman Glaser, the disappointed first director of Sure Start, wrote after he had resigned, the Government made many blunders in the way it spent the money.

It rightly started by targeting small children from the most disadvantaged families in the most disadvantaged wards in the country. Local schemes were licensed to spend the money as they chose and considerable sums were spent on building spanking new children's centres.

Unfortunately, within a few years Sure Start had largely become the provision of group daycare for babies and toddlers.

The damaging consequences are now showing, although credulous newspaper coverage of poorly constructed studies might give you a different impression.

For instance, a recent Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) report claimed that when they had group daycare, under-threes turned out better.

However, such studies almost invariably prove not to have investigated the outcomes adversely affected by daycare. In the EOC study, researchers used a soft measure - Strengths and Difficulties Scale - and, on top of that, did not directly observe the children but relied on parental reports.

As the authors admit, "the main limitation of this scale is that it is based on mothers' perceptions rather than more objective measures, and may not truly reflect the child's development".

While group daycare's adverse results should not be exaggerated, reviews of the evidence (see box, right) show that under-threes who have had it are more likely to be aggressive, have abnormal cortisol levels (making them hyper or docile), suffer ADHD and be indiscriminately friendly. They may also be more insecure.

All these traits make for less receptive, more needy, demanding pupils. By now, Sure Start alumni will be making life harder for primary teachers and, it comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the evidence that the first evaluation of the effects of Sure Start hasn't been good news.

Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College, University of London, with colleagues, has found that, compared with children from equally disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have been through Sure Start have not benefited. Indeed, in the case of the most disadvantaged, they seem actually to have turned out worse.

As a study by Penelope Leach et al has shown, if under-threes are to be cared for by substitutes, a granny is best, then a minder or nanny, with group daycare least good. My conclusion is not that mothers should be chained back to the kitchen sink but that a much greater effort should be made to get fathers (where couples are together - as is the case for most under-threes) to take time out of their careers to share the care with the mother. This is what parents increasingly say they want.

What's needed is much greater job flexibility for parents of under-threes and financial incentives to parents who want to look after them. That way, the much discussed harm to women's careers by having babies would be shared, increasing gender equality, and parents would stop paying others to do the job. It would be good for the children's mental health, too - and make them more teachable Oliver James is a child psychologist and the author of Affluenza - How to be successful and stay sane. The updated second edition of his book They F*** You Up - How To Survive Family Life has just been published. Do you think group daycare is harmful? Have your say on threads.aspx?path=have+your+say


Head Start was a nationwide American project started in the 1960s aimed at breaking the cycle of deprivation by targeting the most disadvantaged in childhood.

At first it seemed to have failed and was hammered by Charles Murray, the American political scientist, in his book Losing Ground for having done so.

However, subsequent research revealed that in programmes that threw every kind of support for parents at them, it worked dramatically - for every dollar spent up front, seven dollars were saved down the line, in terms of crimes prevented, improved career performance and welfare benefits saved.

The most famous example, the Perry School Programme, did not use daycare and targeted 123 African-Americans aged three and four.


Sure Start evaluation: BMJ, June 2006, 332: 1476

Review of studies of the effects of daycare: The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 845-60.

Report of Leach study:,,1583192,00.html

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