Naomi Eisenstadt was the first director of the Sure Start program when it was created under Labour and in a press push around the publication of her new book has some interesting things to say about both Sure Start’s origins and the current coalition government.
On Sure Start’s creation and then rapid expansion, she points out how it didn’t fit the claimed public emphasis of the time on evidence-based policy because the expansion was rushed through before the initial pilots have been evaluated. However, she thinks pushing ahead regardless was right:
The speedy expansion of the scheme from an initial 250 local programmes was pushed through by ministers against the advice of civil servants. “The politicians were right,” Eisendstadt reflects. “If we’d done it in a really strict way, and waited for the results [of evaluations], there’s no question it would be better. But it would have disappeared off the face of the earth.”
As for the current government, she says:
She has been impressed by much of the coalition government’s work in the field. Families in the Foundation Years, the coalition’s document on the support on offer to parents of under-fives, is excellent, she thinks. Eisenstadt welcomes the renewed focus on addressing child poverty via children’s centres (though is concerned by the lack of distinction drawn between poor families and the very neediest, who have much more complex problems); was “enormously impressed” that ministers didn’t cut nursery care for three- and four-year-olds; and believes payment by results may be a useful tool in improving performance management.
But she sees an obvious problem with the early-years vision. “There’s a threat to delivery in the current climate,” she says, “and some of the other policies are going to make more children poor.” And she is dismayed that the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, can find £250m for weekly bin collections, yet has taken the ringfence off local authorities’ funding for children’s centres.
There is a good argument against ring-fencing funds, which rightly finds favour with most Liberal Democrats who think devolving power to local authorities is only meaningful if that is accompanied by financial freedom to choose their own budget priorities. But she is certainly right that Eric Pickles’s approach has been a strange mix of adding and removing ringfencing.