In the latter part of the 20th century evidence was accumulating about the effectiveness of various intervention programmes for young children in disadvantaged families. Some small-scale interventions were evaluated by randomised control trials as in the case of the Abecedarian project (Ramey et al., 2000), the High/ Scope Perry Preschool Project (Schweinhart, Barnes, & Weikart, 1993) and evaluations of home visiting (e.g. Olds, 1997). Others were evaluated by quasi-experimental methods as with the large-scale Head Start project (e.g. Barnett, 1995; Kresh, 1998). Despite some weaknesses in the evidence for large-scale interventions, the accumulating evidence of the benefits of early intervention was very influential in the planning and launch of the Sure Start programme (Glass, 2003), now known as Sure Start local programmes.
Sure Start local programmes are central to the UK government’s policy for combating the adverse effects of poverty and disadvantage on young children and their families. Hence they have potentially great importance in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families and young children. By 2004 there will be 524 Sure Start local programmes in disadvantaged areas in England that will be serving over 300,000 children and their families. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own Sure Start programmes. This initiative represents a unique approach to early intervention for children aged 0–4, their families, and communities. The aim of Sure Start is:
To work with parents-to-be, parents and children, to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children – particularly those who are disadvantaged – so that they can flourish at home and when they get to school, and thereby break the cycle of disadvantage for the current generation of young children.
Sure Start local programmes are designed to be comprehensive, community-based projects adapted to local needs, and making maximal use of local expertise and enthusiasms. Such a focus on local autonomy may capitalise on shared concerns of people for their community (Oliver, Smith, & Barker, 1998). The issue of whether preventative interventions should be targeted or universal in application is dealt with by Sure Start by targeting distinct areas of disadvantage and making the services universal within those areas. In this way there are the advantages of economy associated with targeted interventions and also the stigma-free advantage of universal provision.
While some research has reliably documented the benefits of early intervention, there has been much prevention work that has either not been evaluated or where evaluations are so flawed as to preclude meaningful conclusions (see Mrazek & Brown, 2002; Webster- Stratton & Taylor, 2001). The Sure Start programme recognised the need for rigorous evaluation and after a competitive commissioning process the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) was initiated. Rather than providing a specific service, Sure Start local programmes involve changes to existing services. Improved services and community functioning are presumed to lead to enhanced family and community functioning that in turn enhance child development. This approach raises the following questions for NESS.
1. Do existing services change? (How and, if so, for which populations and under what conditions?)
2. Are delivered services improved? (How, and if so, for which populations and under what conditions?)
3. Do children, families, and communities benefit? (How, and if so, for which populations and under what conditions?)
NESS addresses these questions through four core research components: (1) implementation evaluation that considers how programmes are operating and changing; (2) impact evaluation that considers effects of Sure Start local programmes upon children and families; (3) local context analysis that considers communities as units of analysis and how they function and change over time; and (4) cost-effectiveness analysis that examines economic return on investment of the Sure Start local programmes. The NESS team also provides technical support to smaller scale evaluations being conducted by local Sure Start programmes themselves. The four core research modules of the evaluation are described in turn.