More than a good start

9 Jan 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Jan 2020

Sure Start is two decades old but still going strong. Scope takes a look at a long-running programme that has managed to stay fresh.


Modern trends in social programmes include listening to service users, regular evaluation of effectiveness, an emphasis on results, and localisation.

The idea of centrally designing an initiative, planning its implementation over years, unleashing it on the public and, when it’s all over, conducting a review to see if it was any use is an anachronism.

Nowadays collaboration and flexibility are standard, as are interventions that make a substantial difference, rather than merely seeming like they might. Meaning well is not enough.

That is not to say that nothing old ever works, or that what is now normal was previously unthinkable.

Sure Start is a UK-wide initiative first announced over 20 years by then Chancellor Gordon Brown. Northern Ireland has its own version, established in 2000/01.

It is a targeted programme for children aged 0-4 in the 25% of most disadvantaged wards in NI (and their parents). Currently the Department of Education invests around £25m per year in the 38 Sure Start partnerships across NI.

The programme uses play and other age-appropriate methods designed to support children’s learning skills, health and well-being, and social and emotional development. It also involves support for parents.

But two decades is a long time in policy. Is Sure Start still relevant? Does it work? And if so, why?

Scope spoke with Kevin Duggan, a Sure Start Lead at the Health and Social Care Board – and previously manager of two separate Sure Start partnerships - about why he is so passionate about the service, and why it remains as vital as ever.


One of the key pillars of Sure Start was that it should be a truly local service, tailored to an area’s need and, as far as possible, within pram-pushing distance.

That is why NI has 38 Sure Start partnerships and, while each uses core principles and models as a starting point, they have flexibility to offer the services local parents want and need.

“There is an idea of standardisation in a lot of the approaches. In terms of equality of opportunity, it shouldn’t feel radically different between each partnership, but within each there’s room for tailoring.

“It all ties in well with the direction of government, and its move to work towards outcomes rather than processes. Rather than ‘This is what you must do,’ it’s ‘You have to show you are achieving’.”

“Crudely speaking around 80% will feel the same, but 20% room for innovation, for example with rural needs or other kinds of local considerations.”

Stormont’s last Programme for Government laid out a change of approach for policy in NI, based on outcomes-based accountability. Despite the collapse of the institutions, this has continued. And Sure Start was well placed to move with the times, because it has constantly evolved and looked for innovation at every opportunity.

“Services in NI can be quite siloed but in Sure Start we will have family support workers and play development workers and health professionals all in with families at one time.

“One of the best descriptors for Sure Start is ‘one stop shop.’ To be able to have three different services all at that one time, working simultaneously, is a great example of the joined-up approach.”


One great example of local tailoring has happened in Sure Start in Dungannon.

Dungannon is probably unique in Northern Ireland in that it has a small but significant population originating from East Timor.

Some of these people are parents with young children and their concerted efforts to fit in and adapt to a new country has actually led to potential issues with their children’s speech, language and communication development.

“East Timorese families have moved here and have abandoned their first language, Tetum, and are trying to get their children to use English primarily. However, this was having effects on the children’s language development. Their parents may not have great English but they weren’t speaking Tetum at home, and there were negative impacts on their overall development.

 “So this is a very good example of a specific pocket of need that is being addressed by one partnership. They are doing a lot of creative work with those families – they use storytelling, they have an artist in residence, and they use a lot of play.”

With encouragement from Dungannon Sure Start, the East Timorese parents are now reading stories to their children in Tetum, and embracing bi-lingual development.

By listening to parents, and crafting services with local needs in mind, a service has been created that is hugely valued by parents.

Sure Start’s Parental Survey 2017 received over 3,500 responses, and the results were clear: 94% of respondents rated their Sure Start service as either excellent (83%) or very good (11%); a small percentage of respondents thought that the service was average (1%) or poor (2%); 

91% of parents would be extremely likely to recommend Sure Start to friends and family if they could join.


Mr Duggan said he thinks one of Sure Start’s biggest wider impacts is immeasurable – it normalises engagement.

It operates in areas of high deprivation in a post-conflict society, and where a considerable number of people feel the benefits of peace have passed them by, leading to a certain distrust of statutory services.

However, the local roots of each Sure Start partnership, as well as the provision on offer,

“It’s very much about early interventions, but it has that community-centre feel to it. People talk about their Sure Start and that’s one of the biggest strengths.

“A lot of the staff have spent a very long time working in Sure Start. Personally, I feel I would never move away from it for anything – because I have seen it and know the difference it makes. A lot of workers on the ground are local people, giving local support, and have become highly experienced and highly trained.”

When it comes to the future, he thinks the service will continue to adapt with the times to address local needs, and “not staying the same.”

“A lot of projects have just submitted their three-year business plans. They will have been looking, and will keep looking, at how things are moving in their area. It’s not about keeping the same services, it’s about going where the need is, and not being afraid to stand things down, innovate and adopt new practice.”

Broadly speaking, there is also a greater focus on services aimed at fathers.

“Ten years ago this might have been unheard of but now the role of fathers, in terms of being equal recipients of services, is being normalised. Employment patterns for men and women are changing and there is a trend towards co-parenting, and for both parents to work. Sure Start is well ahead of the game, on that basis.”

Sure Start has stayed relevant by refusing to stand still. There are lessons there for everyone interested in policy.

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