The National Evaluation of SureStart (NESS) has published some early reports. It seems that these contain both praise and criticism - in particular, that it is not reaching some of the most needy kids and families. This has prompted me to dig out an article I wrote three years ago on this subject. Not that I'm saying "I told you so", but, erm, I told you so.
SureStart is an issue on which I can claim thoroughgoing personal experience. I live in a first-wave SureStart area, and have three kids who have been SureStart-ed.
The first thing that SureStart did when it set up in this area in 2000 was to close down a baby & toddler group that Alex enjoyed going to! Nevertheless, it did some positive stuff, as acknowledged in my article.
More has happened in the last three years, both positive and negative.
On the plus side, the SureStart midwife was an absolute blessing during my pregnancy with Harrison (born February 2004). She was the only health professional who I saw more than once while I was expecting, she came round to my house, answered my questions, and even took my phone calls at anti-social times. If SureStart can provide services like this, which help women through pregnancy outside the confines of hospitals and clinics, then great.
Now the negative. The Toddler Art Club mentioned in my article closed when the two workers went on Maternity Leave. No problem with that, if SureStart had replaced it with an alternative service. But no - our estate remained group-less for nearly six months, as SureStart promised, tried and failed to set up a new group. Eventually, we got a new toddler group established when SureStart accepted that it was incapable of organising such a thing and should instead pay another agency (Hackney's Under-Fives Project) to run it instead.
The main obstacle was that our SureStart did not employ children's play workers. I'll say that again. SureStart - the government's project for pre-school children - did not employ play workers. It employed accountants, managers and target-setters. But not play workers.
The latest policy direction for SureStart nationally is the establishment of Children's Centres. No doubt these will provide some much-needed facilities, but I am sceptical about the direction that this takes under-fives services. It feels far too much like centralising services into showpiece buildings, like Mohammed insisting that the mountain come to him.
I can imagine a NESS report in a few years' time showing that middle-class families are making good use of the services based in Children's Centres, whilst parents who are single, unemployed, poor and/or vulnerable remain 'hard-to-reach' in estates and neighbourhoods a few miles down the road.
The fact that various New Labour representatives continually trumpet SureStart as one of their government's great successes shows firstly that they are (probably wilfully) ignorant of its reality, and secondly, that there is precious little else for them to boast about.