New research from IFS finds that Sure Start – England’s first large programme to provide holistic support to families with children under 5 – generated big improvements in the educational performance of children from low-income backgrounds. The effects were particularly pronounced for Sure Start centres set up early in the programme. These tended to have bigger budgets and more successful outreach programmes to families who could benefit from Sure Start but who might not otherwise have accessed it.

Children eligible for free school meals living near a Sure Start centre increased their performance at GCSE by three grades relative to similarly poor children who were not able to access Sure Start.

This research chimes with, and adds to, the international evidence that well-designed and well-funded intervention in early childhood to promote child development through holistic family support can yield important individual and societal benefits.

Between 1999 and 2010, Sure Start expanded as a network of ‘one-stop shops’ integrating services for families with children under the age of 5 under one roof. These ranged from ante- and post-natal health services, parenting support, early learning and childcare, and parental employment support. At its peak, Sure Start cost £2.5 billion per year, but spending has since fallen by more than two-thirds as many centres have been closed, scaled back or integrated into Family Hubs. (The Family Hubs programme is a new place-based initiative to join up the planning and delivery of services locally for children of all ages, which is to receive £300 million of funding over 2022–25 in 75 local authorities.)

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, provides the first evidence of how Sure Start affected children’s educational outcomes up to age 16. It adds to previous analysis from IFS researchers which showed that almost a third of the up-front cost of Sure Start was offset by savings to the NHS through reduced hospitalisations.

Focusing on the expansion of the programme from 1999 to 2010, the researchers find:

  • Access to a Sure Start centre improved children’s academic performance through primary and secondary school. Among all children, those who lived near a Sure Start centre performed 0.8 grades better at GCSE level than those who lived further away.
  • Impacts were disproportionately strong among low-income children and children from ethnic minority backgrounds. Living near a centre increased performance at GCSE by three grades for children eligible for free school meals (FSM). This is equivalent to the difference, for example, between getting two Cs and three Ds and getting five Cs, and is six times larger than the effect on FSM non-eligible children. Across both FSM eligible and non-eligible children, Sure Start had a greater positive impact on non-white children.
  • Sure Start increased the prevalence of support for special educational needs (SEN) at young ages, before reducing it in adolescence. At age 16, the reduction was particularly strong for more expensive Education, Health and Care Plans, the use of which decreased by 9% (or over 1,000 children per year) among children who lived near a Sure Start centre compared with those who lived further away.
  • These positive impacts are entirely driven by centres that opened before 2003, under the Sure Start Local Programme phase of the policy. Throughout the 2000s, these centres spent more, reached out to more families that needed extra support, and had more community input in designing the service offer than centres that opened later.
  • Even accounting only for Sure Start’s impact on educational attainment and SEN prevalence suggests its benefits modestly outweighed its costs, with substantial dividends among disadvantaged families. By its peak in 2010, total spending on Sure Start was around £2.5 billion in today’s prices. The programme’s benefits in reducing the government cost of SEN support offset around 8% of this cost, and we estimate that for every £1 the government spent on Sure Start, children who attended benefited by £1.09 in terms of their lifetime earnings, solely because of better school outcomes.

In addition to benefits from improved educational attainment and lower SEN prevalence, the programme has other known benefits through reduced hospitalisations of children, as evidenced in previous research. Forthcoming work will expand to other outcomes, including children’s social care and youth crime, and provide a comprehensive picture of the role of Sure Start in shaping children’s lives.

Nick Ridpath, a Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a co-author of this report, said:

‘Sure Start generated substantial benefits for disadvantaged children throughout their education, helping to close the disadvantage gap in attainment. Centres with more resources generated much larger benefits, partly because the extra funding allowed them to reach out to families who were less likely to engage with Sure Start but who stood to benefit a lot. The return on investment in integrated early years services that are given the resources to reach those most in need can be very large.’

Sarah Cattan, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a co-author of this report, said:

‘Back in 2009–10, the government spent a third of the early years budget on Sure Start. Since then, overall early years spending has significantly increased, but spending on Sure Start has dwindled as a result of a clear shift in the government’s early years policy away from integrated early years services and towards the free childcare entitlement. The current Family Hubs initiative aims to join up family support services for children aged 0–18 with less than 5% of what Sure Start received at its peak. It seems unlikely Family Hubs will be able to go as far in realising the potential that this research shows early years integrated programmes can have for children and their families.’

Ruth Maisey, an Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: 

‘Local authorities and schools are experiencing significant problems with securing sufficient special educational needs provision to meet families’ rising needs. So policymakers will want to take stock of this research as they look to improve special educational needs provision. It will be important to consider how early provision of integrated services might form part of the solution, given the demonstrable effect of Sure Start in reducing the need for Education, Health and Care Plans.’