Early boost, lasting benefits: How Sure Start helped children thrive

17th April 2024

Imagine having a bunch of evidence-based programmes and practical resources, all in one place, to improve the lives of parents while ensuring that the lives of the most deprived little ones under five got off to the best possible start? That’s what the Sure Start programme was all about, but while it sounds great on paper, did it deliver on all the glittering promises it made?

Well actually… yes, yes it did.

Sure Start was introduced in 1998 as a way to give families in England a helping hand through centres that served as powerful ‘one-stop shops’. These centres bonded a range of powerful interventions together, like health check-ups, parenting advice, childcare options, and even help for those job hunting.

The whole idea was to give young children the best possible start in life by supporting the families who love them. And of course, that’s everything we could want for our communities, in the North East and beyond.

Earlier this month (April 2024), the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report that highlights the incredible impacts that Sure Start had on educational outcomes.

As we move closer to a general election, let’s explore these key findings and discover if there’s really any scope to push for a Sure Start revival.

Key findings from the report

Sure Start centres were responsible for giving little ones an excellent head start in life , which some parents, pupils, and school staff alike can only dream of in 2024.

Studies show children (between the ages of 0 and five) who had a Sure Start centre nearby performed 0.8 grades better on their GCSEs aged 16. There isn’t a single soul that can find a negative in that stat!

Plus, even more commendably, these benefits weren’t just exclusive to those who actually went to the centre, either. Studies show that even if families didn’t use it directly, having one nearby made a positive difference to the community.

The research also found some interesting patterns around SEN. The Sure Start programme might have indeed meant more children were identified as needing extra help at age five, but by age 16, the number of those that needed support actually decreased!

This suggests Sure Start helped identify challenges early on, so those pupils in need could get the right support and do even better in school later on down the line. This is exactly what the current SEN landscape is in dire need of. And Schools North East has highlighted this numerous times.

Overall, the studies – and glowing feedback from parents – show that Sure Start was a great investment, and something we should absolutely look to learn from when designing support for the early years in the future.

By giving young children (and their families) a boost early on, it helped them succeed in school and in life. Isn’t that everything we’ve been crying out for over the last decade?

What the numbers say

Sure Start was a powerful means for survival for many communities and families, but naturally, it did help children from tougher backgrounds even more.

For example, those who grew up needing free school meals saw an amazing six times the improvement on their GCSEs compared to those who didn’t.

Now, Sure Start certainly did cost a pretty penny – about £2.5 billion in today’s prices, to be specific. But here’s the most critical piece of information: That money was successful in positively impacting thousands of lives!

Additionally, significant cost savings were made in long-term SEND changes, reduced child hospital admissions, and improved GCSE resuts. In fact, studies show that for every £1 the government put into Sure Start, produced almost £1.10 back in benefits.

So, what happened?

1,300 centres have closed down since 2010, meaning thousands of families no longer have access to this crucial support.

At their peak, there were around 3,600 centres
In some areas, cutbacks have meant as many as 85 percent of centres have closed
This is a devastating change, especially in places like Staffordshire (where 46 out of 54 centres closed) and Oxfordshire (which lost 37 out of 45 centres).
We need to see a similar initiative introduced imminently

Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East, said: “We would be delighted at the prospect of a new initiative that supports the youngest children, building on the successes of Sure Start.

“As stated in the Schools North East manifesto, we need an education policy that offers greater support for Early Years. Policy makers must take into account that evidence-based interventions, co-created with schools, are most effective.”

Most recently, former members of the Labour government called on Kier Starmer to put a new Sure Start-style programme “at the heart” of the next Labour manifesto. And hey, if you ask us, that sounds like a great idea.

The long-term tracking of the impact of this project means we’re able to say, in no uncertain terms, that Sure Start is the foundation of a programme that works and therefore is totally worth fighting for.

We’re not saying that it’s the perfect model and requires no tinkering. Of course not. For example, research shows that the initiative didn’t work as well in rural areas; if we do relaunch a similar concept, we must ensure it’s inclusive of all geographical locations.

But a relaunch of some kind is certainly what we do wish for.

Maybe it’ll have a different name, or perhaps a different system. And that’s fine. All we care about is receiving a similar initiative that works to combat child poverty and give every single young person (and their family) the best start in life.

It’s the only way we’ll continue to improve and strengthen our region long-term.