As the primary purpose of "How to save £50 billion" was to stimulate debate, the report has been an unqualified success. Informed and considered conversations are now going on about what works and what doesn't, what's vital and what's non-priority.
The debate about Sure Start - which we proposed should be brought to an end - falls right into the first category. Does the programme work?
Tom Clark yesterday provided a considered critique (which can be found here) of our Sure Start proposal. He makes some solid points, but I would argue that while Mr Clark rightly observes that there is paucity of data with which to make definite conclusions about whether Sure Start works, I don't believe he makes a convincing case for keeping the programme.
Mr Clark's principal criticism (if I understand it correctly) is that as programmes such as Sure Start have such considerable bed-in times, and depend on lengthy cohort progression (the first fully 'assessable' Sure Start year will only turn 11 around 2015 I calculate from Mr Clark's statements) no-one at the moment is in a position to judge whether Sure Start does or doesn't work.
In this we are in complete agreement. In an ideal world we would have reams of data, the results of detailed studies that could help us conclude such a question one way or the other. All we have at the moment are various Government evaluations, alongside Birkbeck's independent study, all of which relentlessly stress that it is too early to make any conclusions. Indeed, the Birkbeck study states clearly that observed improvements in 3 year old cognitive ability could easily depend on changes in the study's methodology since the last run of tests.
So we are left with two options; continue to committ billions of pounds to the programme untl 2016 - when hopefully we will be able to judge its impact - or, alternatively; rely on the considerable evidence (some of it anecdotal) which argues that Sure Start is not the best way to address this critical problem.
We maintain that the first option is just not feasible. If nothing else, Sure Start morphs so often that the system operational in 2016 is unlikely to resemble the one in operation in 2005. For whatever reasons - the highly centralised control of education and children policy in the UK being the main one - Sure Start will change slightly every year, whether in focus or delivery, and the Sure Start defenders of the future will then argue that no-one can condemn the Sure Start of 2016 because it has changed so much since its outset. This is has already happend over the past 10 years with Sure Start, as it has with Regional Development Agencies and the NHS Trust structure.
So we are left with option two. When attempting to draw up our list of possible expenditure cuts, we spoke to employees involved in Sure Start schemes. Many, as one would expect, thought the approach was the right one, but that it was being applied badly. Some were bold enough to say that the whole experience had left them disillusioned with the idea that Government could affect positive change among the target group. While opinions varied considerably, what united them was the feeling that Sure Start as a programme was not doing the job. The commentators on Mr Clark's Guardian piece (see here) re-affirm this, and many of those commentating are again people with first hand experience of Sure Start on the ground, whether as a parent or employee.
As this debate develops, everyone has to be wary of those people who wish to equate a wish to end Sure Start with a desire to abondon disadvantaged children. Any such assertion is not just misleading, it is outright dishonest. There are not, I admit, fully worked out and costed alternatives sitting on the shelf. Those commentators who have made this point are right; alternatives may well still cost money. But at the moment a policy designed to help the children of the most disadvantaged appears to benifiting the relatively well-off the most. It doesn't - on all the available evidence - appear to be having the impact it was meant to (which must matter). The bar of success can be constantly moved down, but why not consider different approaches, some of which might actually do more to help disadvantaged children. Throwing resources (taxpayers' money) at these children does not mean one is committed to helping them. It means one is committed to throwing money at them. That is the easy bit. It might be proof of a much greater commitment to the poor if the Government actually stopped using money as a proxy for commitment, and actually considered the best ways - however unpalatable they may be - to improve the chances of those least likely to born with them.