Sure Start: Fears grow that children’s centres cut are hitting the poorest

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The services offered by Sure Start children’s centres continue to decrease, particularly in disadvantaged communities. With the attainment gap persistently evident, is this a missed opportunity to help close it?

It was New Labour’s vision: Sure Start children’s centres across the country improving the life chances of socially and economically disadvantaged children.

These centres would offer a range of services including childcare, healthcare, parenting classes, job skills and playgroups. They could and would make a difference.

At its peak, Sure Start had 3,600 centres and a budget of £1.8 billion. Now, the Closed Doors report from charity Action for Children (2019) finds that spending has fallen by more than £300 million in the last four years and it is estimated that around 1,000 centres have closed between 2011 and 2017. It is expected that the trend of closures will continue.

The report finds that:

  • Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, the estimated number of children using children’s centres fell by almost a fifth (18 per cent) – from 2.2 million to 1.8 million.
  • The proportion of children aged under five who have used a children’s centre fell from 50 per cent to 41 per cent between 2014/15 and 2017/18.
  • Average children’s centre spending per child has fallen from £532 in 2014/15 to £412 in 2017/18.
  • The number of children using children’s centres in the most deprived local authorities has fallen faster than in the least deprived.

Evaluations of the centres have produced mixed results over the years. It has been difficult to extrapolate concrete evidence to justify and ensure the continuation of the Sure Start vision.

However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has recently reported more positively on the project (Cattan et al, 2019).

The IFS evaluation suggests that when high levels of service were offered in poor neighbourhoods in England, visits to hospital to treat injuries to children of primary school age fell by a third. It finds that Sure Start benefits children living in disadvantaged areas the most.

Closed Doors also supports the existence of children’s centres. It finds that ‘the average developmental gap between children from low income backgrounds and their peers has fallen in areas where the number of children using centres has increased’.

However, it looks as though it is those same poor neighbourhoods that are struggling the most to maintain their services.

Disadvantaged impact

From 2005 Sure Start money was gradually devolved to local authorities. From 2010 onwards the number of Sure Start centres began to dwindle as the budget was no longer ring-fenced.

Although protection for Sure Start funding had been promised, cuts to local authority budgets meant an inevitable reduction in the money available and centres started to close.

The report Stop Start by the University of Oxford in conjunction with the Sutton Trust (Smith et al, 2018) found that more centres were open part-time and offered reduced services and fewer sessions.

As money reduced so the centres appeared to be less of a priority. With the suspension of Ofsted inspections and with national guidance neglected, the centres also slipped down many local authorities’ priority lists.

Findings from Closed Doors suggest that provision in the most deprived local authorities has fallen faster than in the least deprived.

The report adds: ‘Deprived areas have traditionally recorded poorer outcomes for children at age five, suggesting a greater need for services provided by centres. This makes the fall in the number of children using centres deeply worrying.’

It also reminds us that since 2014/15, more than 800,000 children have started school below the expected developmental milestones – including 168,000 from low-income families.

Although individual children’s centres may be targeting those most in need there has been a disproportionate reduction in the number of centres and facilities available in the poorest areas.

The report suggests that there has been a 22 per cent fall in provision compared to 12 per cent in the most affluent areas.

However, as primary schools in disadvantaged areas work hard to tackle the attainment gap evident on entry, might not a service supporting the families of the new born until school admission be just what is needed?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) notes that: ‘Early years education has huge promise in preventing the attainment gap becoming entrenched before children start school. However, it has not yet yielded as much as it should.’ (EEF, 2017)

A crucial role

The ‘core purpose’ of Sure Start was to improve outcomes for young children and their families, and reduce inequalities. This included through supporting:

  • Child development and school readiness.
  • Parenting aspirations and parenting skills.
  • Child and family health and life chances.

Teachers recognise the importance of this early start and the continued involvement of parents that can last into the primary years.

Although provision varies, many children’s centres have prioritised the home learning environment. This includes activities that parents do at home that support child development such as reading, playing with letters and numbers, teaching nursery rhymes and songs, painting, drawing, taking children to the library and on other visits.

Provision was to include universal as well as targeted services. As budgets have shrunk some of the universal services have gone. Local authorities have continued to try and protect facilities for targeted families and provide the support they need. However, in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas, universal services can catch vulnerable families before they slip into the target zone.

Children’s centres can also enable SEN to be picked up at an early stage before the child enters school, reducing the pressure on the primary school to begin the assessment process.

For example, identification of autism in the early years can mean that the necessary support can be put in place at an early stage preventing a delay when they go to school.

What now?

Closed Doors has three recommendations for national government:

  • They must show leadership and set a clear direction for children’s centres.
  • The Spending Review must allocate additional funding to local authorities.
  • There should be a record kept of children’s centre use.

The chancellor’s one-year Spending Round, delivered on September 4, did reveal a funding package of more than £3.5 billion for local government services, including £1 billion for social care and continued funding for the Troubled Families support programme. But no mention is made of Sure Start and so there is no guarantee that any of this money will be used to shore up children’s centre provision (HM Treasury, 2019).

The IFS report, meanwhile, acknowledges that it is unlikely that funding will again reach the highs of 2009. Instead it points out that targeting the poorest and most disadvantaged areas would have a subsequent benefit.

The government is aware of the importance of tackling inequality as early as possible. It has established an Early Years Social Mobility Peer Review Programme (DfE, 2018) to look into the issue.

However, this in itself makes little mention of children’s centres. As Closed Doors points out: ‘There is a clear contradiction between minsters talking about giving children the best start in life but overlooking children’s centres.’

If the government is committed to social mobility then ensuring that the very youngest children enter school as prepared as possible should be a priority. If the current trend continues, then a valuable opportunity to improve life chances in these areas will be lost. 


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