Ross Clark Ross Clark

What’s the truth about Sure Start?

Gordon Brown, chancellor when Sure Start was introduced (Credit: Getty Images)

Labour, unsurprisingly, is crowing about a paper published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming that Tony Blair’s Sure Start centres improved the GCSE results of children from low-income families a decade after attending the centres. Children who lived within 2.5 km of a Sure Start Centre before 5, it finds, went on to score an extra 0.8 in their grades at GCSEs compared with children who lived further away.

At their peak in 2010-11 there were 3,500 Sure Start centres, intended as ‘one-stop shops’ where parents could access healthcare, parenting support, early learning, childcare, as well as research employment opportunities for themselves. After 2010 the incoming coalition concentrated its efforts elsewhere, with the result that between 2010 and 2022 funding fell by two thirds and 1340 centres closed.

Gordon Brown is among the New Labour figures citing the IFS research today and calling for a new programme of Sure Start Centres if Labour wins the election, saying ‘the wilful destruction of Sure Start and the reductions of children’s benefits after 2010 has set back opportunities for millions of children’s futures’.

It would be surprising if Sure Start, which was consuming £2.5 billion by Labour’s last year in government, had achieved nothing in improving the prospects for children. Yet there is something unsatisfactory about the IFS research. For one thing it admits that it is lacking data as to which children actually attended Sure Start centres. Instead, it uses how close children lived to one of the centres as a proxy. But of course, not all children who lived within 2.5 km of a centre attended it – while many children who lived more than 2.5 km from one did attend one.

Moreover, there are plenty of other factors as to what might have influenced children’s performance at GCSEs a decade after they had attended a Sure Start centre – one of which, for example, might be the Pupil Premium introduced by the coalition government in 2011. As with Sure Start centres, this programme – which offered extra resources for schools – was focused on areas with high levels of deprivation, so will have benefited many of the same children who lived near Sure Start centres.

The summary of the IFS report, and the reporting of it, concentrates on the GCSE results of children who lived near Sure Start centres. Yet the study also looks at those children’s developmental progress and educational attainment at ages 5, 7 and 11. Interestingly, the IFS can find no statistically significant improvement in developmental scores among 5-year-olds who lived close to Sure Start centres – i.e. the age at which you might expect children to be showing the greatest advancement. The ‘Sure Start’ effect only seems to have kicked in at age 7, before peaking at age 11 – by which point children had been at school for six years. Can you really attribute that to Sure Start centres – or to other policies which targeted schools in similar, deprived areas?

One of the criticisms of Sure Start is that they sometimes failed to reach the most deprived pupils, while middle-class children were often beneficiaries of their services. A National Evaluation of Sure Start in 2005 found that children from the most deprived backgrounds were doing less well in areas with a Sure Start centres, while parents of less deprived children were using the services more. That is one of the reasons why the coalition, after 2010, chose to concentrate resources elsewhere.

The IFS report will be jumped on by Labour, but it does nothing to contradict the finding of that early evaluation. The failure to find any improvement in the development of 5-year-olds who lived near Sure Start Centres rather undermines the claims this report makes.

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