Why Sure Start worked

Sure Start centres which were well resourced and locally embedded, able to do outreach work to parents, have had an impressive impact. We need to learn from that approach.

Toddlers doing a music session at nursery


Yesterday saw the publication of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report on Sure Start. Sure Start was England’s first big government initiative to provide holistic support to families with children under the age of five through a network of local ‘one-stop shops’, which brought together a range of services to support local families, including childcare. When the decision was taken to start decreasing funding in the centres from 2010 there was little evidence about their impact. But since then as more centres have been closed – between 2010 and 2022, funding for Sure Start decreased by over two-thirds and over 1,340 centres closed – there have been more studies.

The recent introduction of Family Hubs and the Start for Life offer suggests the Government realises that Sure Start had a point. The IFS’ report reinforces that.

First and foremost it shows that the programme significantly improved the educational achievement of children, with benefits lasting at least until GCSEs. It says children who lived within a short distance (2.5 kilometres) of a Sure Start centre for their first five years performed 0.8 grades better in their GCSEs. This is based on all children living in the area, but the impacts were much larger for those from the poorest backgrounds and those from non-white backgrounds. By the time they took their GCSEs, the effects were six times higher for those eligible for free school meals than for those not eligible for them.

Other benefits were increased diagnosis of special needs for children up to five, but a decreased number having an Education, Health and Care Plan at age 16.

The report says the benefits relate to Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs), the first iteration of the centres which had much larger budgets and were able to do more on parental outreach and had much more community input into what programmes were offered.

The IFS says the cost of the programme is offset by the savings on special needs support and the higher attainment of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It states: “These results provide further evidence that intervening in early childhood to promote child development through holistic family support can yield important dividends when programmes are well designed and funded.”

I remember going to workshops held through our local Sure Start Centre and taking daughter one to a holiday playscheme there. The outreach work was impressive and groundbreaking. I have worked in public engagement at a university and I know that to be truly inclusive requires work and resources, building links and working on the ground near where people live. But the benefits of getting it right are huge, and sometimes difficult to measure.

One of the key things about Sure Start was the parental support the centres offered on a face to face basis. Too often now there is little or no support, or the support there is is to go to a website which has general information, but that information does not take into account the different, often complicated personal circumstances of individuals. The new Family Hubs are a welcome reversal of policy, but they do not appear to have the ambition or scale of Sure Start. Centres based in the community that are dedicated to reaching out to local people know their community best and are best placed to provide the support they need.

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