Sure Start numbers plummet as cuts hit children’s services

Exclusive: Study reveals 20% decline in use with biggest fall in England’s poorest areas

Local authority spending cuts have driven a 20% fall in the number of youngsters using Sure Start children’s centres in just four years, with the most dramatic decline occurring in some of England’s poorest areas, a study has found.

The charity Action for Children estimates that 1.8 million children used Sure Start centres in England in 2017-18 – down from 2.2 million four years earlier – a direct consequence, it says, of a 62% cut in council early years service spending since 2010.

The charity said it was especially concerned that deprived authorities had reported the biggest reductions in use, at a time when rising poverty was likely to have fuelled demand for parent and child support services in those areas.

Numbers of children using Start Start in the 30 most deprived authorities were down by 22%, compared with 12% in the 30 least deprived councils, the study found. Overall, 10 councils reported a decline of more than 50% in children’s centre visits over the four-year period, while a further 47 reported reductions of 20% or more.

Sure Start was a flagship New Labour project designed to boost the educational and life chances of socially and economically disadvantaged children. The centres offer childcare and play sessions, parenting advice and employment coaching. At their peak in 2010, there were 3,600 centres, with a budget of about £1.8bn.

Between 500 and 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed in England since 2010, according to recent research. But “closure” figures can mask the way some councils kept centres open while reducing services. Estimating footfall gave a more nuanced view of the impact of funding cuts, the charity said.

The research findings – coupled with the failure of some councils to collect robust data on Sure Start centre use – raise questions about whether local authorities were meeting their duties to ensure there is adequate children’s centre provision in their area, it added.

Last week, campaigners in Buckinghamshire won permission at the high court to challenge plans by Buckinghamshire county council to close 19 of its 35 centres in September. A judicial review hearing in July will consider whether the council has breached its legal duties to provide sufficient Sure Start coverage.

Imran Hussain, Action for Children’s director of policy, said despite the importance of children’s centres and their popularity among many families, years of cuts had left councils with little choice but to reduce Sure Start budgets and close centres. As a result, many services were harder to access.

“Children’s centres are unable to continue to reach families across communities, leaving many thousands of new parents with nowhere to turn for early help support – a far cry from the idea of easily accessible, one-stop-shops within pram-pushing distance,” he said.

A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found Sure Start centres in deprived areas that offered high levels of service delivered major health benefits and millions of pounds in NHS savings through reduced hospitalisation.

The child poverty expert Naomi Eisenstadt said it was not surprising the largest reductions in use were in the poorest areas containing the biggest concentrations of disadvantaged children as these areas had experienced disproportionately severe government funding cuts.

She added that the hollowing out of Sure Start in recent years had swept away outreach services designed to encourage the most disadvantaged and “hard to reach” families to come to the centres, and this may also have have impacted on declining take up.

Action for Children, which provides 116 children’s centres in England on behalf of councils, said its figures were underestimates, partly because about 20% of all 152 upper tier authorities that responded to its freedom of information requests said they had not collected data on children’s centre use over the full four-year period.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want every child to have the best start in life, with the opportunities and the stability to fulfil their potential and since 2013, the disadvantage gap for children at age five has narrowed.

“More than 700,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds have benefited from 15 hours’ free childcare since its introduction in 2013, and 600,000 three- and four-year-olds have benefited from a 30-hours place in the first two years.

They added: “We believe it is up to local councils to decide how to organise and commission services in their areas, as they are best-placed to understand local needs.”


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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