Last reviewed 20 August 2021

The Sure Start early years programme has delivered long-lasting health benefits for children through their teenage years, according to new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, builds on previous IFS analysis and provides the first evidence of how this major initiative affected children’s health up to age 15. Established in 1999, Sure Start Children’s Centres brought together health, parenting support, childcare and parental employment services into a one-stop shop for families with children aged under five. At its peak in 2010, Sure Start received £1.8 billion a year (a third of overall early years spending), but spending has since fallen by more than two-thirds as many centres have been closed, scaled back or integrated into Family Hubs.

The report reveals that the savings from reduced hospitalisations up to age 15 offset around 31% of spending on the programme. Focusing on the 2000s, when the programme was expanding, the research finds Sure Start:

  • reduced hospitalisations of five-year-olds by 7% or the equivalent of 2,900 a year

  • prevented over 13,150 hospitalisations of 11 to 15-year-olds each year – an 8% reduction on pre-Sure Start hospitalisation rates.

The research also found that boys had longer-lasting benefits from Sure Start than girls, reflecting their greater sensitivity to disadvantage in the early years. The benefits of Sure Start were also longer-lasting in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods which suggests that Sure Start provision helped to reduce health inequalities.

Following these findings, the report is calling on the Government in England to consider the long-term benefits and funding of integrated early years programmes in their policy decisions. 

Maud Pecher, a co-author of the report, said: 

“By bringing together a wide range of early years services for children under five, Sure Start centres dramatically improved children’s health even through their teenage years. Children who had greater access to Sure Start in their early years were far less likely to be hospitalised later on – at its peak, Sure Start provision prevented over 13,000 hospitalisations of 11 to 15-year-olds each year. These benefits were particularly long-lasting for boys and children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”

The full report is available here.