Sure Start kids do better at GCSE, says new IFS report 

Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) details major benefits from government scheme to support children aged 0-5 over past 25 years, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Sure Start local programmes were first launched in 1999 to provide holistic support to families with children aged 0 to 5. In effect, they offered a central location to access a range of services including including healthcare, early learning, parenting support and help for parents to find employment. Until 2004, the scheme was aimed at neighbourhoods of high disadvantage in England but was then rolled out more widely. At its peak in 2009-10, there were more than 3,000 Sure Start service points across the country, accounting for about a third of all government spending on the under-5s. 

girl in brown button up shirt holding blue and orange plastic toy

Photo by Ana Klipper

The change of government in 2010 saw a curtailment of the Sure Start scheme. By 2021-22, funding had been cut by 73% compared to 2009-10, and at least 1,340 centres had closed. Family Hubs, introduced in 2021, offer the same kind of integrated service but without the targeted focus on children aged 0-5 and, in some cases, without a physical presence.  

The new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies is the latest to assess the impact of the scheme over the past 25 years and the impact of cuts. 

The findings couldn’t be more stark. Short Start centres had a lasting effect on the educational outcomes of children, as those who lived within 2.5km of a centre while aged 0-5 went on to achieve grades at 16 that were 0.8 higher than their peers who had not had the same access. The implication is that reducing access to Sure Start in the past 14 years will continue to have a negative impact on grades for years to come. 

What’s more, the positive impact of Sure Start was much more marked among those from the poorest backgrounds and those from non-white backgrounds – in some cases by as much as six times. 

Access to a nearby Short Start facility was associated with a higher number of children aged 5 being recorded as having a special education need or disability (SEND) than their peers. Yet, interestingly, by 16 those who had access to Short Start were 3% less likely to be recorded as having a SEND and 9% less likely to have an education, health and care plan (EHCP). There’s at least a suggestion in this that early assessment and diagnosis can reduce the need for formalised support later on – something well worth investigating further. 

The report also offers a modest cost-benefit analysis of Sure Start, such as in reducing government spend on SEND support by some 8% but the authors intend to undertake more research in this area. They will also examine the impacts of Sure Start on referrals to children’s social care services and on juvenile offending. 

Sarah Cattan, Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and co-author of the report, says: ‘Back in 2009-10, the government spent a third of the early years budget on Sure Start. Since then, overall early years spending has significantly increased, but spending on Sure Start has dwindled as a result of a clear shift in the government’s early years policy away from integrated early years services and towards the free childcare entitlement. The current Family Hubs initiative aims to join up family support services for children aged 0–18 with less than 5% of what Sure Start received at its peak. It seems unlikely Family Hubs will be able to go as far in realising the potential that this research shows early years integrated programmes can have for children and their families.’ 

Ruth Maisey, an Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, adds: ‘Local authorities and schools are experiencing significant problems with securing sufficient special educational needs provision to meet families’ rising needs. So policymakers will want to take stock of this research as they look to improve special educational needs provision. It will be important to consider how early provision of integrated services might form part of the solution, given the demonstrable effect of Sure Start in reducing the need for education, health and care plans.’

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