Do we still need Sure Start in 2016?

The government's localisation agenda has meant that there is little guidance on children's services


One of the tasks that councillors and officers face on returning to work is planning for the future of the Sure Start children’s centres. In the last five years, budgets have been reduced, and many local authorities have restructured their Sure Start programmes.

This has largely been achieved by management efficiencies and without many centre closures. But there is little fat left to be trimmed and further budget reductions will see large reductions in Sure Start services.

Today the future of Sure Start is at a crossroads, through a combination of a lack of vision from central government, local authority spending cuts and sometimes poor management.

Centres providing an integrated range of healthcare, education, parenting advice and other support services for families have existed in Britain for over 100 years, many of them set up by charities. Drawing on the work of the Head Start programme in the United States, the Labour government provided £450 million funding for Sure Start in 1998, initially for 250 children’s centres in deprived areas.

The aim of this programme was to provide a range of support for families with children under five, and improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Despite limited evidence of major positive impacts on children and their parents, Sure Start was expanded between 2004 and 2010, to provide a children’s centre for every community. This extension was controversial, with Naomi Eisenstadt, the civil servant in charge of the programme in its early days, feeling that a universal service would spread resources too thinly to make a difference to the lives of the poorest children.

By April 2010 there were 3,631 designated Sure Start children’s centres in England, providing learning activities for children, parenting advice, access to child and family healthcare and, in some cases, careers guidance and childcare.

The Department for Education is now the lead department for Sure Start, with much of its funding coming through the Revenue Support Grant, the general local authority funding stream. Although £1.45 billion is earmarked for early intervention programmes within the Revenue Support Grant in 2015-16, the funding is not ring-fenced so councils can spend it as they see fit. Spending varies between local authorities – between £16 per year per child under five and about £400.

The localisation agenda has meant that there is little guidance from the government on the children’s centre services that councils must offer. As a consequence, there is a considerable variation between local authorities in the range and quality of services they offer. A few local authorities deliver excellent services that reach even the most disadvantaged families.

Parents who use Sure Start generally speak highly of its provision – as witnessed by demonstrations against children’s centre closures. But Ofsted inspections indicate that in many local authorities, there is a lack leadership and services are not reaching the most disadvantaged families. Council research from County Durham, for example, showed that in deprived areas, just one-in-five eligible families had stepped inside a children’s centre.

The debate as to whether Sure Start improves children’s outcomes continues. Opinions abound about its future direction, with many different views expressed about whether Sure Start should be a universal service, or largely aimed at disadvantaged families. There is debate about the target age, with some arguing for a service just for under twos and others for the extension of Sure Start to cover children of all ages.

Most children’s charities believe that Sure Start should remain a universal service, but also encompass targeted support for those families with specific needs. There is scope for collocating more Sure Start centres in primary schools, thus providing seamless 0-11 parenting support. Just under a third of Sure Start centres provide nursery or crèche provision and there is scope for using these facilities and their staff as resources to improve the quality of all childcare in their local area.

Despite these views, no official consensus has emerged about Sure Start’s future. At best, ministers seem ambivalent to the programme and many councils appear to lack a clear aims for children’s centre provision. Moving health visiting to local authority control in October 2015 should have presented opportunities for councils to re-energise Sure Start, but this has yet to be realised.

At present, Sure Start is dying a slow death. If it is to survive, central and local government leadership is needed – and a clear vision for its future.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and writes in a personal capacity

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