Sure Start centres deliver long-lasting health benefits, according to new IFS report
By Rachel Lawler
Sure Start centres, one of England’s biggest early years programmes, delivered long-term health benefits for children, lasting into their teenage years, according to new research by the IFS.
The new research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, suggests that the children’s centres prevented 13,000 hospitalisations each year among 11-15-year-olds.
The savings from these reduced hospitalisations offset around 31% of the cost of the programme.
The IFS argues that the government should consider the longer term impacts of early intervention alongside the upfront cost of early years services ahead of the autumn's Spending Review.
While the research also found an initial increase in hospitalisations for children at age one, likely linked to children’s centres roles in referring parents on to healthcare services and greater exposure to infectious illnesses in group settings, this increase was more than outweighed by the longer-term reduction in hospitalisations through childhood and adolescence.
The research suggested that the reduced number of hospitalisations is likely linked to stronger immune systems, reduced chance of accidents and poisoning, improved mental health and potentially better behaviour during adolescence.
Sarah Cattan, IFS associate director and a co-author of the report, said: “The savings from reduced hospitalisations up to age 15 offset around a third of the cost of the Sure Start programme – and that’s before considering any potential benefits in education, social care or crime. Ahead of this autumn’s tight Spending Review, these results are a reminder that policymakers should consider a programme’s potential for long-term savings, not just its up-front costs.”
Sure Start children’s centres launched in 1999, offering families with children under five a variety of support such as childcare, parenting support and health services. By 2010, the government was spending £1.8 billion on Sure Start centres – a third of overall early years spending at the time.
Since then, funding for Sure Start centres has fallen by more than two-thirds as many centres have closed or restricted their services.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, commented: "The fact that the Sure Start programme is still paying dividends for children into their teenage years is yet more confirmation of what we already know – that investing in young children is not only the right thing to do, it is also a sound financial decision.
"Recent governments have shamefully let down children and families by not only cutting Sure Start services which reduce hospitalisations, and do much more good besides, but also by allowing funding for under-five education to dwindle to far less than the cost of delivering it.
"If the government genuinely cares about our national finances, it should have no hesitation in making a significant investment into early childhood development, since the high-quality early years provision all children deserve will more than pay for itself in the years to come."
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1,000 children's centres have closed since 2009