Sure Start centres ‘stop children being hospitalised’

4 Jun 19

Sure Start centres – that have been closing in their hundreds over the past decade - offer major health benefits to disadvantaged children, a think-tank has found.

The centres, where parents can access support and advice, reduced the likelihood of children being hospitalised – especially those in disadvantaged areas, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies out today showed.

Looking at NHS Digital data, the IFS found in the poorest 30% of areas with a centre the probability of hospitalisation fell by 11% for 10 year-olds and 19% for 11 year olds between 1997 and 2014. This compared to the wealthiest 30% of areas seeing “practically no impact at all” of having a local centre, the report said.

UCL associate professor and IFS research fellow Gabriella Conti said: “Access to Sure Start has had big benefits for children’s health during primary school.

“Relative to not having Sure Start, opening one centre for every thousand children prevents 5,500 hospital admissions of 11-year-olds each year.”

Infection-related hospitalisation is reduced by Sure Starts as children develop stronger immune systems when exposed to other children’s illnesses, the IFS concluded. Some Sure Start centres provide early learning and full day care for pre-school children.

The think-tank found that at its peak in 2009-10 £1.8bn was spent on Sure Start – accounting for around a third of public spending – but has since fallen by two-thirds to £600m in 2017-18.

This has lead to more than 500 centres being closed since 2011 and some branches reducing the number of services they provide. 

“Since 2001, local authorities have adjusted to the removal of the funding ring-fence in several ways, including centre closures, consolidation of several centres into one and/or reduction in services and hours of operation,” said the IFS report.

Lower hospitalisation rates have a direct cost implication for the NHS, the think-tank said. The economists estimated that fewer hospitalisations for children aged between 5 and 11 amounts to £5m per year.

IFS research economist Christine Farquharson 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 top decide on their vision for Sure Start as the programme turns 20.”

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association, said Sure Start provides “a lifeline” for children, parents and carers.

She added: “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 their ever tightening budgets.

“It is inevitable that without new investment from government in children’s services, councils will face the difficult but unavoidable decisions of having to cut or close early help services such as children’s centres.”

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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