The government's Sure Start programme- loudly and tediously trumpeted by them as a rare example of success- is now recognised as another expensive flop. Yesterday, even Tony was forced to admit it.
Sure Start began in 1997 as a limited programme to help the young children of problem families in deprived areas. But over the years it has become much more ambitious- and much more expensive. Exact costs are difficult to pin down, but the best estimate is £3bn so far, with spending budgeted to increase to £1.8bn pa by 2008.
As with so many half-baked government initiatives, all the initial targets (such as reducing illiteracy among target children) were missed. But instead of ditching the whole thing, they expanded it, and even appointed the first ever Children's Minister...er, Margaret Hodge. A major study was commissioned- the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS)- to dig up some evidence- any evidence- of success. Unfortunately, NESS concluded that Sure Start had actually made things worse:
"The programme is setting back the behaviour and development of young children in the most alienated households...Children of teenage mothers and unemployed or lone parents did worse in Sure Start areas than those in similarly deprived communities elsewhere. The behaviour, speaking and social skills of three-year-olds in the most disadvantaged families all suffered in areas covered by Sure Start programmes, which run in 524 poor areas...those in the greatest need may feel "overwhelmed or turned off" by the Sure Start support on offer."
So there we are. Upwards of £5bn down the tubes, and counting. And life made even worse for those it was meant to help.