Sure Start Paradox
by Matt Grist
When Sure Start centres first sprang up they were decentralised, built from the ground up by the communities that housed them. This had all the advantages of localisation: tailored to specific needs; little distance between provider and user; active roles taken by local people (i.e. helping to run and design services); and lots of informal social networks flourishing.
But then Government wanted to know what these centres were achieving, given that taxpayers were funding them. As is often the case with localised services, Sure Starts were patchy in the outcomes they achieved. This unevenness led to a drive to bring them all up to scratch through centralised guidelines and service design. This drive had the benefit of bringing ‘evidence based’ practice (such as proven early-years literacy improving methods) to all centres and so raised the likelihood of services bringing about good outcomes. The drawback was that all the harder-to-quantify benefits of informal social networks and devolved responsibilities were diminished.
What to do? Both localisation and centralisation have their benefits, so which do we choose? In fact, this is a false choice. To marry the two approaches we should look to the professionals who mediate between centre and locality. For example, a good literacy teacher is perfectly capable of applying high quality evidence based practice, whilst at the same time tailoring her offer to local needs. Good professionals make judgements like these all the time. They are also very much used to seeing services in the round – they will be well aware that a coffee morning might be just as important as a health class.
Taking into account the mediating role of professionals one might wonder why the Sure Start paradox ever arose. The answer to this question goes to the heart of how evidence based policy has been implemented. It is certainly an excellent idea to properly test an initiative before rolling it out nationally. But the model that has come about in the last decade or so is one where initiatives are tested in a way that disregards the personal qualities of the people running them. Unfortunately, this disregards the very qualities that make most things work.
What has happened is that a requirement of social science research - ‘controlling’ for contingent variables not (apparently) inherent to an initiative – has been wrongly interpreted as also being a requirement of implementing an initiative. Yet it is madness to think that certain personal qualities aren’t essential to initiatives, even hard-to-pin-down qualities like being an inspiring leader. Anyone running a business knows these qualities are crucial, as does anyone running a school, college or university.
So the Sure Start paradox will only be properly solved when this distinction between the requirements of social science research and programme implementation is kept firmly in mind.