The Sure Start programme – now known as Children’s Centres – massively boosted the health of children from poorer areas, research has found.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, highlighted the positive effect of the government support for families with young children which is now largely lost after the closure of more than 500 services in England since 2010.
The study is the first of its kind to follow children who had access to Sure Start right through to the end of primary school.
UCL associate professor and IFS research fellow Gabriella Conti said the benefits are biggest in the poorest neighbourhoods, so access to Sure Start “can help close around half the gap in hospitalisations between rich and poor areas”.
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First established 20 years ago, the programme provided health, education and childcare services that received a high of £1.8bn a year funding in 2010 (in current prices) which has been cut by two thirds since. But the research demonstrates that Sure Start significantly reduced hospitalisations among children by the time they finished primary school, with the effect concentrated on disadvantaged areas.
It was found that the effects built over time – so much so that by age 11, one centre per thousand children prevented around 5,500 hospitalisations a year.
This effect was almost non-existent in children living in the richest third of neighbourhoods, indicating that services like Sure Start closed the health inequality gap for children.
The Sure Start centre closures were more concentrated in wealthier areas but around 170 of the services lost have been in the poorest third of neighbourhoods.
Some local authorities closed the majority of their centres while others kept them opened and reduced the services on offer instead. The government insisted that decisions about the programme should be taken at local level – where local authorities have been forced to cut spending on local services by 21 per cent between 2010 and 2018 and in some cases use up cash reserves.
The IFS said the study proves that limited resources should be focused on poorer areas rather than spreading them thinly.
Research economist Christine Farquharson said: “Sure Start has had a turbulent history, with a fast roll-out followed by deep spending cuts. But these decisions were not always based on thorough evidence about the programme’s impacts on children and their families.
“Ahead of the Spending Review, it’s crucial that both central government and local authorities use the best evidence available to decide on their vision for Sure Start as the programme turns 20.”