Shaky beginnings maybe, but the Sure Start scheme is a sure-fire success with local people. Claire Laurent reports

Of all the government's initiatives since coming into office, Sure Start has to be the one that can claim universal commitment and enthusiasm. No-one can deny the value of giving children the best start in life.

Its strength probably lies in its status as a cross-government project, with public health minister Yvette Cooper taking day-to-day responsibility, and education and employment secretary David Blunkett taking charge at Cabinet level. The Sure Start unit is headed by Naomi Eisenstadt, who has a background in voluntary and community work.

It also has a lot of money committed to it:£452m for 1999-2002 and another£500m just announced for the three years after that.Each Sure Start programme receives in the region of£2.5m.

There has been criticism that programmes were slow to get off the ground. Those involved in them insist that this reflects the detailed requirements of the delivery plans from each of the 60 so-called 'trailblazers'.

In Hastings, for example,17 projects had to be detailed and costed. Community involvement had to be developed, and plans drawn up in advance of receiving any funding. But as communities change, so do their needs, and some projects have had to be redrawn.

The third wave of programmes had funding up-front for community involvement: 'We have learnt as we have gone along, 'says Patrick Towgood, communications officer at Sure Start.

Evaluating the programmes is done on two levels - locally, with each programme completing monthly evaluation forms, and nationally - the award of the national evaluation programme is due to be announced at the end of this month.A longitudinal element is planned as part of the national evaluation, following up Sure Start children and families throughout their lives.

Ore Valley, Hastings, had a head start as far as Sure Start was concerned. The local housing association was already working with the residents' association and advice centre, and with a voluntary organisation called Playlink, funded by East Sussex county council. There was no formal partnership between all the agencies, but as a network they supported each other and, with the help of Sussex University, managed to secure European Social Fund money.

'We had the perfect foundation, so we were invited to apply for Sure Start, 'says co-ordinator Jan Casson.

Under the project, two one-bed flats are being turned into mini-community centres, a food co-operative has been set up and money has been put aside for a community cafe.

Meeting stringent targets demands a broad-based approach, says Ms Casson. 'With the child protection target [to achieve a 10 per cent reduction in the number of children reregistered with the child protection service], it's about improving the emotional and social development.'

Under the Playlink scheme, all children are due a visit from a pre-school visitor, generally women who also have children and have had some training in supporting young families.

And because they make themselves available to everyone, no-one feels stigmatised by the service. It's unheard of for a family to turn down a visit.

Involving the local community is harder in some areas than others.In Barker-End, Bradford, the community is particularly diverse; it includes Bengali, Pakistani, Gujerati, religious groups such as Hindu and Sikh, Pathan and, in the minority, white families.

'A lot of white families feel really intimidated because they're in the minority, 'says Kal Nawaz, Barker-End Sure Start co-ordinator. 'We have made sure the staff reflect the diversity.'

This has meant recruiting staff so that all the languages in the community are covered.'We have tried wherever possible to recruit local people with local knowledge and local networks and to make sure they have the professional skills.'

A door-to-door survey talking to families to gauge their interest in street committees is also under way. But, says Ms Nawaz, Sure Start's own management set-up is going to have to find new ways of working.

'If we want to make community involvement a reality, they have to radically alter the structure, content and the environment of their meetings. They have to be more accessible.'

Finding premises for the range of Sure Start projects has been the biggest stumbling block.

'Barker-End is a really deprived area with very rundown housing. Even the empty commercial premises were in such a state we couldn't consider refurbishing them with public funds, ' Ms Nawaz says. In the end, the unit settled for a Portakabin on the Leeds Road Hospital site.