Families deserve better than Family Hubs

Family Hubs aren’t Sure Start, and we should be bold enough to call out their inadequacies.

Ben Cooper (@BenCooper1995) is a senior researcher at the Fabian Society

Across England, some families with young children struggle from the moment of birth – entrenching inequalities that last a lifetime. With just 47 per cent of English children on free school meals reaching the expected level of development by the age of five, disadvantage in early years has lifelong consequences as children fall behind their richer peers and are never supported to catch-up. This is a national scandal.

A few weeks ago, the government announced £300m to invest in Family Hubs. In their words, Family Hubs “bring services together helping parents, carers, children and young people to access the support they need more easily”.

Some progressives responded to this announcement asking if the government had just “re-invented” Sure Start.

Sure Start transformed thousands of lives. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats essentially dismantled it, forcing the closure of 1,000 centres across England, and overseeing the support provided by the ones that remain dramatically reduced. Surely, any return to provision apparently similar to Sure Start is to be welcomed?

The problem is Family Hubs are not just re-badged Sure Start centres.

First, and most predictably, the scale of the ambition for Family Hubs and funding is tiny.

£300m is proposed over three years, split between 75 different places, and used to deliver an array of services for families with children from conception to age 19 – or 25 in the case of families with disabled children.

This is clearly insufficient. At its peak, in 2010, Sure Start centres received 7 times as much funding in one year alone (£2.1bn in January 2023 prices), and were accessible across the whole country – not just a few places, in a few local authorities.

But beyond low funding, there are fundamental problems with the design of Family Hubs.

The government has spent more than a decade failing to tackle unequal life chances for children under the age of five. And they are now seeking to replace much of the remaining children’s centres targeted specifically at this age group and their families with these Family Hubs.

By inadequately aiming to help every child and young person under the age of 19 – and their families – who need help, they risk crowding out targeted support and funding for our youngest, poorest children. Hubs cannot be expected to dedicate as much resource, time or space to early years services, while also trying to serve every other age group under the age of 19. The government claims Family Hubs will provide a universal offer, but this is an outlandish claim – given they aren’t providing anything close to the funding required to make it happen.

So while Family Hubs may sound like a good idea, the reality is that this new push disguises a loss of focus on the early years. It will mean many communities lose the only public service dedicated to under-fives, and the most disadvantaged children in the most disadvantaged places will suffer most.

So Family Hubs aren’t Sure Start, and we should be bold enough to call out their inadequacies. A failure to do so ultimately lets down thousands of young children and their families who need high-quality, universal early years support.

Progressives should focus on developing the one-stop shop for all families with children under-five, relevant for the challenges faced by families now and in the next decade. Whether they’re called Sure Start, Family Hubs or something else, this service should be clearly dedicated to babies, young children and their families – not for young people of all ages, who should be better supported in schools, colleges and youth clubs.

There should be a mixture of universal help and target interventions, with an emphasis on peer-to-peer support, where parents, grandparents and carers provide mutual help and advice to new parents. There must be adequate funding to deliver such a mixture, as it cannot be delivered on the cheap. But the success of Labour’s Sure Start shows us that this is a sound investment.

Families, babies and young children deserve better than Family Hubs. Progressives need to show they have the real answers and dedication to improve early years services.

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