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Social Justice

Sure Start centres kept 13,000 teens from hospital before cuts

Wraparound support for families with young children improved their prospects for up to a decade, a new report showed, but funding was cut by two thirds

Sure Start centres cut health inequalities and prevented thousands of children from being hospitalised, according to new research, before the government reduced spending on the scheme by more than two thirds.

The centres, launched in 1999, provided a one-stop shop for health, care and work support for families with children younger than five. Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) research showed the lasting impact Sure Start intervention had on children’s health, recording a particular boost to the long-term wellbeing of boys and disadvantaged children long after they aged out of eligibility.

The support “dramatically improved children’s health even through their teenage years”, said Maud Pecher, a co-author of the report. “Children who had greater access to Sure Start in their early years were far less likely to be hospitalised later on.”

Ministers spent £1.8bn on the scheme at its peak, in 2010 – a third of the budget for early years support – but have since cut the funding by more than two thirds with many centres closed or reintegrated into other services. More than 500 centres closed in England between 2010 and 2019.

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Children who benefited from Sure Start centres were far less likely to be hospitalised later in childhood, researchers found, with the support preventing the hospitalisation of more than 13,150 11-to-15 year olds each year in the noughties.  

The impact represented an eight per cent reduction in hospitalisations, while the impact was felt more acutely in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Attending Sure Start centres strengthened children’s immune systems and protected them from infections later in life, reduced the likelihood of them finding themselves in risky environments and improved mental health and behaviour during adolescence, according to the report.

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Easy access to the service actually increased hospitalisations among one-year-olds, which researchers said was likely down to centre staff referring parents to healthcare when appropriate as well as a greater exposure to illnesses and viruses because kids had more opportunities to socialise in groups.

The benefits from Sure Start centres lasted longer for boys than girls, the study showed, reflecting their “greater sensitivity to disadvantage” in the early years.

The impact on girls faded out after they finished primary school, whereas more than 3,200 boys were still avoiding hospitalisation by age 15.

Government savings from reduced hospitalisations among children “offset around a third of the cost” of the Sure Start programme, said Sarah Cattan, associate director for the IFS. “And that’s before considering any potential benefits in education, social care or crime.”

The findings should serve as a reminder to ministers that long-term savings should be considered in improving the nation’s health, “not just its up-front costs”, she added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial, which is why we have put unprecedented investment into childcare over the past decade, including over £3.5 billion in each of the past three years. We are investing more than £14 million to champion Family Hubs, as well as targeted support for speech, language and communications skills through the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme.

Ministers are encouraging councils to publish a “clear Start for Life” offer for parents and carers, the spokesperson added, to make them aware of what support is available locally.

Years of Tory cuts to vital public health services have seen sickness increase and health inequalities widenJonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary

The IFS study was published as Labour took aim at the government’s record on cuts to public services and its role in widening health inequalities, forcing councils to make “incredibly difficult decisions”.

Analysis by the House of Commons Library showed real-terms budget cuts of 15 per cent to local authority drug and alcohol services between 2017 and 2020. A record 7,423 people in England and Wales died from diseases that were directly caused by alcohol last year, Labour said, while 4,561 deaths were linked to drug poisoning.

South Tyneside, Wiltshire, Staffordshire and Medway all saw real-terms cuts of more than 40 per cent over the four-year period.

“The UK’s tragically high Covid death tally brings into sharp focus the importance of improving people’s health,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary.

“But years of Tory cuts to vital public health services have seen sickness increase and health inequalities widen.

“It’s unacceptable for public health services that tackle alcohol and drug addiction are left so weakened because of deep cuts when we know that they can cause huge harm and death.”

The MP called for a “new settlement” for public health services and a clear target to cut health inequalities.

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