The twenty-year-old childcare programme has had major health benefits for children in poorer neighbourhoods, a new analysis reveals.
Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that Sure Start ‘significantly reduced’ hospitalisations among children by the time they finished primary school.
The think tank estimates that by age 11 greater Sure Start coverage (one more centre per thousand children aged 0–4) prevents around 5,500 hospitalisations per year.
A reduction in infection-related hospitalisations of young children plays a big role in driving these effects, according to IFS. At older ages, the biggest impacts are felt in admissions for injuries.
Sure Start, which was introduced in 1999 but has seen its budget cut by two-thirds to £600m over the last decade, benefits children from disadvantaged backgrounds the most.
While the poorest 30% of areas saw the probability of any hospitalisation fall by 11% at age 10 and 19% at age 11, those in more affluent neighbourhoods saw smaller benefits, IFS found.
Those in the richest 30% of neighbourhoods saw practically no impact at all.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that the reduction in hospitalisations at ages 5–11 saves the NHS approximately £5m – about 0.4% of average annual spending on Sure Start.
However, the think tank’s summary of their findings noted: ‘It is crucial to emphasise that we are considering the financial impacts of only a narrow set of potential outcomes and setting them against the total cost of Sure Start.
‘Further research is needed (and some is already under way) to determine whether the programme has had other effects – for example, on academic and behavioural outcomes and on the demand for social care.’
Responding to the report, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: 'As this report shows, 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.
'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.'