Sure Start

Children from low-income families who grew up near a Sure Start centre did better than their peers at GCSEs, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Its research says those living near a centre performed up to three grades better than those further away.

Sure Start began in 1998 to support new parents, especially in disadvantaged areas, but many centres have closed.

The Department for Education (DfE) said its family hubs scheme had a “number of advantages” over the Sure Start model.

The IFS study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, used postcodes from when children were five years old to determine roughly how close the nearest centre was. It then looked at the GCSE results of those children 11 years later and found “big improvements” in the performance of those living near a centre, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

The study found a child on free school meals who got DDD in their GCSE grades would be more likely to get three Cs – or three 3s would become three 4s under the current boundaries – if they lived close to a Sure Start centre in their early years.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, the Labour chancellor who first announced the initiative in 1998, said the UK “desperately needs a new Sure Start. These results tell us in detail what most parents already know,” he told the Guardian. “That if you provide a supportive environment to children in their early years and invest in their futures, the results will be life-transforming.”

Among all children in the study, those who lived near a Sure Start centre performed better at GCSEs than those who lived further away, but the trend was more pronounced among those eligible for free school meals, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The effects were more pronounced at centres which started earlier in the programme, the IFS said, as they tended to have bigger budgets and better outreach to help bring in families who could benefit from using them.

The scheme improved early support for children with special educational needs, and reduced the need for expensive education, health and care plans in their teenage years, the IFS said.

Sure Start was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998 as “one-stop shops” providing parents of children under five with integrated support around health, education, childcare and employment, particularly in disadvantaged areas. At its peak in 2010, the IFS says spending on the scheme topped out at £2.5bn in today’s prices, with more than 3,000 centres around the country.

An IFS report from 2019 found Sure Start reduced the number of children being admitted to hospital, but said funding for the scheme had been cut and 500 sites had closed.

Sarah Cattan, an IFS research fellow who co-authored the report, said government spending on early years had “significantly increased” since 2010, but had shifted away from integrated services and towards funding free childcare.

A DfE official said the government now spent four times more overall on early years than had been spent on Sure Start at its peak. Its investment in childcare would be “transformative for children and families”. And 75 councils in England were running family hubs, which, unlike Sure Start, provided support until children turned 19 – or 25, if they had special educational needs or disabilities.

But Ms Cattan said the hubs currently receive a fraction of what was spent on Sure Start at its peak, so are “unlikely to go as far in realising the potential” of integrated early years services.

Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, said Sure Start had been “decimated, leaving families in desperate need of support”.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said the IFS study showed that children’s centres provide “vital” opportunities to “support children’s long-term development and improve their life chances”. He added: “While the government’s new programme of family hubs is undoubtedly welcome, with the current rollout limited to 75 local authorities, it’s very difficult to see how the plans will compensate for the sheer scale of children’s centre closures that have taken place over recent years.”

Senior Labour figures, including former Prime Minster Gordon Brown and former Home Secretary David Blunkett, have called for Sure Start centres to be at the heart of the party’s election manifesto.

But shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves refused to commit to funding new Sure Start centres. “I know it made a big difference to the lives of very many people,” she told BBC One’s Breakfast programme. There are lots of things I would like to do – but I will always make sure all our policies are fully costed and fully funded. And the breakfast clubs that we will fund will make a big difference to make sure that all children have a good start to the day and parents can take on more hours at work.”

Naomi Eisenstadt, the first director of Sure Start, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the government was investing “a lot more money” on pre-school aged children. She said the impact the project had was “startling”, adding: “This is the first project ever that was set up by government aimed at poor people that everybody wanted, which says something wonderful about how welcoming it was, how people felt it really helped their lives as their lives were lived, not how we want them to live.”

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