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Sure Start: Thousands of children end up in hospital because of cuts to support centres, study finds

Programme helps close half the gap in admissions between rich and poor areas, IFS finds 

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 04 June 2019 09:55 BST
A Sure Start children’s centre bus in Newmarket. An Oxford University report said some parts of the service had suffered acutely from cuts or restructuring
A Sure Start children’s centre bus in Newmarket. An Oxford University report said some parts of the service had suffered acutely from cuts or restructuring (Alamy)

Children’s centres, which have had their funding cut by two-thirds, significantly reduce the number of hospitalisations among children – especially those in poorer areas, a study has found.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests opening a children’s centre – known as Sure Start – for every 1,000 children prevents 5,500 hospital admissions of 11-year-olds each year.

The children’s centres, which were originally launched as Sure Start centres 20 years ago to help provide children in poorer neighbourhoods with health, education and childcare services, were found to halve the gap in hospitalisation rates between the poorest and richest children.

The research, which is the first of its kind to follow children who had access to Sure Start right through to the end of primary school, comes after hundreds of centres have closed in recent years.

Overall, hospitalisations for injuries – such as fractures and head injuries – as well as infection-related hospitalisations have fallen due to access to Sure Start centres, the study finds.

The report suggested that Sure Start has helped young children to develop their immune systems, perhaps through supporting immunisations or exposing children to other children’s illnesses.

It added that a decline in admissions for injuries might suggest that children in areas with better access to Sure Start have safer environments in their neighbourhoods, that parents engage in better parenting practices, or that the child is better behaved and less prone to injuries.

Gabriella Conti, IFS research fellow and UCL associate professor, said it was clear there were “big benefits” for children.

She said: “Relative to not having Sure Start, opening one centre for every 1,000 children prevents 5,500 hospital admissions of 11-year-olds each year.

“Since the benefits are biggest in the poorest neighbourhoods, access to Sure Start can help close around half the gap in hospitalisations between rich and poor areas.”

The Sure Start children’s centres programme, introduced in 1999 by the last Labour government, has had its spending cut by two-thirds since 2010 and more than 500 centres have officially been closed.

Christine Farquharson, IFS research economist, 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.

“Our findings suggest that limited resources are best focused on the poorest areas.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of social mobility charity Sutton Trust, said: “At the peak of the Sure Start programme, there were over 3,500 children’s centres across the country. Yet these numbers have been decimated in the past decades.

“Many sites that are still open are only offering a fraction of the services they once did.

“It is a major issue that the support is now more thinly spread and inconsistent from one area to another. Thousands of families are missing out on the vital support that these centres can provide.”

Tracy Brabin, Labour’s shadow early years minister, said: “This research shows the critical role Sure Start plays in children’s health, as well as their development.

“But shamefully, over 1,000 Sure Start centres have been lost through years of austerity, meaning children and families across the country are missing out.

“It’s heartbreaking that such a vital service, which helps disadvantaged children the most, has had two-thirds of its funding cut since the Tories came to power in 2010.”

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Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People Board, said: “Children’s centres can provide a lifeline for children, parents and carers, offering an incredibly important service in the local community.

“This could be anything from advice for parents on physical and mental health, caring for a new-born, or simply a place for children to enjoy free-play and interact with one another.

She added: “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.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Children’s centres can play an important role in supporting families, and local councils decide how to organise and provide services for families in their areas to meet local needs – whether this is through children’s centre buildings or delivering services in different ways, and we continuously reflect on what works best.

“We want every child to have the best start in life, which is why our Healthy Child Programme means children and families receive five mandatory Health Visitor checks before they are two and a half.

“Our NHS Long Term Plan puts tackling health inequalities at its heart, and more than 700,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds have benefited from 15 hours free childcare since its introduction in 2013 – with 95% of early years providers rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.”

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