NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 3, 2006

In England, families are flocking to new after-school programs that are supposed to help local children do better in school and stay away from crime, but studies show that these programs may not be doing that much good, says the Economist.

Sure Start -- a flagship program designed to provide child care, early-years education and parental support in the most deprived areas of England -- was launched in 1999; since then, 524 local programs have opened and £3.1 billion ($5.4 billion) has been spent with not a lot to show for it, says the Economist.

According to researchers:

  • Families in Sure Start areas seemed to be only slightly better off than those who lived in similar areas without the program.
  • Benefits did not extend to the very worst-off families, where children's language development was comparatively delayed.

Moreover, Sure Start is not directed at struggling individuals, but covers whole neighborhoods, so the well-off tend to be the first to take up whatever is offered. The Economist says that is why the negative findings have not been surprising.

  • It takes about three years before a program gets into full swing, with another three years before it reaches large numbers of the well-educated and confident -- only then do the most deprived think about joining.
  • At the time of evaluation, many of the programs had only been running for 18 months and that may have been too soon to spot genuine benefits.
  • Advocates of Sure Start say that even before poorer families participate, it can help by making poor neighborhoods better places, though many benefits will be second-hand.

Nevertheless, the program is to be extended across the country, and by 2010 every child under four will have access to one of 3,500 neighborhood centers, says the Economist.

Source: Editorial, "A Faltering Start." Economist, December 10, 2005.

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