Sure Start: Study finds ‘significant benefits’ for disadvantaged children

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The Sure Start programme has had “significant benefits for children’s health” in the most disadvantaged areas, researchers have found.

The report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that – in light of its findings and the huge cuts to Sure Start funding – services should be prioritised in disadvantaged areas.

The research looked at the impact of Sure Start services on children’s health in particular and found that Sure Start reduced the likelihood of hospitalisation among primary-age pupils.

Indeed, attending a Sure Start centre reduced the probability of hospital admission by four per cent at age five and by 18 per cent at age 11 (the equivalent to averting 5,500 hospitalisations of 11-year-olds).

For younger children, hospital admissions for infections were reduced, while for older children it was admissions for injuries that saw a reduction.

This impact is most notable in disadvantaged areas. The poorest 30 per cent of areas saw the probability of any hospitalisation fall by 19 per cent at age 11 compared to practically no impact in the richest areas.

The report states: “The bigger benefits in the poorest neighbourhoods could come about because disadvantaged children are more able to benefit from Sure Start, because the types of services Sure Start offers in poorer areas are more helpful, or because children in disadvantaged areas were more likely to attend a centre.”

The researchers say that their findings raise important questions for policy-makers about the future of Sure Start funding and services.
Sure Start was introduced in 1999 and targeted at disadvantaged neighbourhoods before being rolled out nationally. At its peak in 2009/10, Sure Start attracted £1.8 billion in funding (at today’s prices). However, the ringfence was removed in 2011 leaving local authorities to decide how the money was spent and funding has since fallen dramatically to £600 million in 2017/18.

It means huge variation across the country. Some local authorities have closed almost all Sure Start centres, while others have not closed any, instead cutting back opening hours and curtailing services.

The IFS estimates that the reduction in hospitalisations has saved the NHS at least £5 million. However, the report does not estimate the impact of other Sure Start services, such as supporting school readiness and parents’ employment decisions.

The report states: “Our results suggest that one way to deliver more value for money would be to focus on providing services to the disadvantaged areas, which are more likely to benefit from them, and to consider which types of services and models of provision could most effectively help this group.”

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said local authority children’s services were facing a £3.1 billion funding gap by 2025.

She added: “There is a growing sense that councils have done all they can within ever tightening budgets. It is inevitable that without new investment from government in children’s services, councils will face the difficult but unavoidable decision of having to cut or close early help services such as children’s centres.”

The government recently commissioned the Early Intervention Foundation to review the existing evidence on children’s centres and produce practical materials to help local areas make decisions about children’s services.

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