Not So Sure

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Over the last few years the British government has spent a good deal of taxpayers’ money on educational activities for pre-school children, under the heading of ‘Sure Start‘, aimed especially at those from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to American readers, that should not be surprising, as the Sure Start scheme is partly inspired by the American Head Start scheme.

This week research by academics at the University of Durham has been published, showing that the Sure Start scheme has so far had no measurable effect on the abilities of children entering school.

In view of the Head Start precedent, this should not cause any great surprise. Even supporters of Head Start do not claim more than moderate benefits.

Predictably, parts of the educational establishment in Britain have jumped to the defence of Sure Start. According to Prof. Ted Melhuish, writing in the Guardian (where else?) “The effects won’t show themselves for a couple of years yet and the really important effects won’t show themselves until adolescence”.

Are you sure, Ted? In most of the studies on the effects of Head Start, any educational benefits actually fade out after a year or two. Prof. Ted’s optimism therefore seems to be a triumph of hope over experience.


  1. Jerry Pournelle has repeated said that Head Start is actually forbidden by law (state or federal?) from teaching the kids how to read. This is its single greatest handicap. I have also read that the benefits offered to kids by Head Start disappear by around the 4th grade or so. 
    Can anyone confirm if these two points are true?

  2. At the formative stages of Sure Start I wrote to the Dept of Education asking if they had anyone on their planning team to run through the academic literature on compensatory education. The rather confused reply was that they hadn’t included academics, but anyone could write in with suggestions! I was astounded at the lack of intellectual input, ignorance of the evidence based literature, and general unwillingness to learn from the past. I think I wrote them a few notes about the Abecedarian project, making the observation that apparent early gains in the 0 to 5 years of life rapidly faded, but still left a useful residue of 4 IQ points in later life. As you say, if there are no effects now, there will very probably be none later at any stage.

  3. Uh… Nick Bostrom says we should work on brain chips and neuropsychological drugs for cognitive amplification.