The Sure Start programme, which has been significantly scaled down since 2010, has improved the health of children in more deprived areas, an evaluation by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found.
The study, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and for the first time followed the progress of children who had access to Sure Start centres through to the end of primary school between 1999 and the late 2000s, showed the programme significantly reduced hospital admissions for the group.
Researchers found no significant impact on admissions for children aged five, but by the time Sure Start centres were rolled out to a peak rate of one centre per thousand children aged 0-4, the number of admissions prevented by the time the children were 11 was 5,500.
However, the study found no impact on hospital admissions for children living in the 30% richest neighbourhoods. “This means that providing access to Sure Start at the level of the programme’s peak closes about a half of the gap in hospitalisation rates between the 30% poorest and 30% richest areas by the end of primary school,” the report adds.
The evaluation said more than 500 sure start centres closed between 2011 and 2017. These closures have been concentrated in wealthier areas, but 170 centres were shut down in the poorest 30% of neighbourhoods.
Researchers found a variation in the number of Sure Start centres closed by councils, with some shutting down the majority while others maintained sites but reduced the range of services being provided.
One of the report authors, IFS research economist Christine Farquharson, said decisions to close Sure Start centres were not always based on thorough evidence of the programme’s impact.
“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,” she said.
Responding to research chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board Anntoinette Bramble (Lab) said: “While many councils have adapted well to the funding pressures and changed how they provide children’s centre services, in particular to target those communities most in need of support, 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.”