Billions for babysitting

A six-year study of Britain’s Sure Start learning centers for children four and under finds no improvement in “children’s development and skills as they enter primary school,” reports The Telegraph.

Middle-class mothers use Sure Start centers for free babysitting, writes Alice Miles in The Times. Low-income mothers often stay away.

Some of them can’t be bothered. Some may be put off by the dominance of the confident middle-class mothers. Some might be deterred by the fear that they will be asked to fill in a form and they won’t be able to read it. And then there is the pervasive nervousness about the State, and its power over their children: is the centre there to spy on them and report them to social services as bad mothers? Might it try to take their children away? It is so much easier to let the kids watch TV at home instead.

More than $40 billion has been spent since 1997 to create learning centers in low-income areas; the Labour government plans an $8 billion expansion, reports Gadfly.

About Joanne


  1. It’s really irresponsible journalism. Instead of citing statistics showing that lower income people actually use the service, she quotes her friend. Probably such statistics do not exist.

    Instead of referring to a survey or some sort of enquiry into why poor people don’t use the service, she speculates.

    Instead of thinking about actual problems lower income people face – middle income people drive over and drop off the kids, lower income people don’t have a car – she panders to stereotypes and supposes that they just prefer to let kids watch TV.

    Clearly she wants the service closed. She will go on an on about how it doesn’t help poor people. But to her, the situation is much worse. It does.

  2. I would add that the Telegraph coverage, which declares ‘Early learning education plan a failure’, is equally irresponsible.

    The coverage is putatively of a study performed by academics at Durham University “found that children’s development and skills as they enter primary school are no different than they were in 2000.”

    Of course, the program was only passed in 2004, which means that children who entered the program, which they do at age three, would be barely out of it now, if at all. There is no reason to expect any change in performance at all.

    And the author of the study concedes, “It is possible, however, that it is just still too early to measure the effects of these programmes, particularly those of the Children’s Act and Every Child Matters, which were only introduced in the past few years.”

    What the author does is to lump it in with other programs generically, beginning with those started when Labour took power in 1997. The inference is that because those programs didn’t work, the current one isn’t working.

    Of course, it’s not clear that those programs didn’t work either. It would make more sense to study the outcomes before 1997 and those achieved after 1997. The results obtained in 2000 might have been a significant improvement, one that the study showed was sustainable.

    Moreover, I would add that it is not at all clear that the purpose of the program is to produce the sort of result that the Durham researchers are looking for. The Durham research started before the program was even a gleam in the government’s eye.

    The story also argues that the government is trying untested programs. It quotes a Conservative critic as saying “”The report is right that there have been too many initiatives that have not been properly tested before being implemented.”

    But, again, this is simply not true. “Research by the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) demonstrated that two years of high quality early education can give young children a four to six month advantage at entry to reception class and can help those from poorer backgrounds to catch up.”

    In other words, every assertion in the Telegraph story, including the headline, turns out to be false.


    I probably need not say how much damage has been caused by the politicization of education. But it is worth wondering why the conservatives keep doing it.

  3. John Thacker says:

    Stephen Downes, such irresponsible commenting. You complain about the lack of statistics and about speculation, but resort to the basest of ad hominem speculations about someone’s motives.

    Instead of thinking about actual problems lower income people face

    What, you don’t think pushy middle-class mothers competing for resources is a real problem that lower income mothers face? And how about some statistics for your assertion that transportation is the “actual problem” that they face, rather than mere speculation? It’s a reasonable speculation on your part, but even if true, wouldn’t that still mean that the program as currently run is benefiting the middle-class more than the poor?

    So you give an explanation that agrees with her basic theory– that the poor have a harder time taking advantage of this program– and yet still blast her for bringing it up. If I were given to the same sort of crude attacks as yourself, I might claim that you “obviously” want programs that pretend to care about the poor but actually deliver most of the benefits to middle-class people like yourself.

    There is no reason to expect any change in performance at all.

    Blatantly false, Stephen Downes. There are reasons to expect that there might be some change in performance; plenty of preschool and early intervention programs have shown short-term gains. Indeed, the US Head Start programs are known for producing their largest and most measurable gains in the short-term immediately after completing the program, effects that often decline in later years. Certainly the academics are correct to concede that it may be too early to tell, and it’s perhaps reasonable to suggest that perhaps the program’s goals are not those measured by the metrics the academics used, but there’s a long way from that to claim that “there is no reason to expect any change.”

    I probably need not say how much damage has been caused by the politicization of education.

    I take it you’re not referring to the inevitable politicization of education that occurs when it’s run by the State, or the politicization of education that comes when an educational policy like Sure Start is proposed in a political platform and adopted for political reasons and political benefits? Sure Start was hardly a scientific proposal made by bureaucrats and scientists. It’s hardly politicization to perform research and study what’s the best way to spend education dollars. In fact I’d say that education is more politicized when academic criticism of a politician’s plan is ruled out of bounds by those such as yourself.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    John Thacker, Dude! You’re the man!

    What he said.

  5. I wish I was paid millions for babysitting. Or teaching. Either one. 🙂