I welcome MP Andrea Leadsom’s proposals to help parents and young children, announced on Thursday. For some years, the government has been largely silent on support for families: the expansion of free childcare has largely been about allowing women to work, not about improving prospects for children.
In 1999 I became the first director of the Sure Start unit, and shortly afterwards we began distributing funds to local areas. But during the austerity era, local authority funding cuts led to massive closures of Sure Start children’s centres. Many that remain open are a shadow of their former selves: open only a few days a week, with some only offering services to targeted families judged to be in need of specialist support.
This is a far cry from the original vision of joined-up services, open to all families with children up to three years old, and located in areas where families needing the services were most likely to live. While the original evaluation of Sure Start was disappointing, subsequent research found positive outcomes for parents and children: such things as helping to improve the home learning environment and less harsh discipline. As recently as 2019, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, by the time children reached 11, those from Sure Start areas were 18% less likely to have needed a hospital visit. The biggest impact was on the poorest children.
Leadsom has made six recommendations, including seamless support for families delivered through family hubs. While this sounds very much like Sure Start children’s centres, the Leadsom report goes further. The notion of a “digital red book” so information on children could be held by parents and shared by a range or professionals is consistent with the huge advances that have been made in digital information-sharing in the past decade; so too is the offer of digital and telephone support direct to parents. As we have learned from Covid, remote consultations can be very effective, and especially important for rural areas.
I also welcome her attention to the importance of workforce and leadership. One of the weaknesses of Sure Start was that we did not pay enough attention to the difficulties of joining up services at community level.
Leadsom argues, as we did with Sure Start, that specific support should be determined locally, as needs differ across the country. If family hubs can replicate the reach and popularity of Sure Start centres, they will be making an enormous contribution to child health and wellbeing. Key to success is the welcoming nature of the centres, the willingness of local mothers and fathers to use them, and the quality of services on offer.
But I do have three concerns. First, Sure Start was backed by significant ringfenced central government funding: Leadsom has yet to persuade the Treasury to release any resources.
Second, Leadsom opens her report with the warning that, by two years of age, it is already too late. I profoundly disagree with this statement. There is no doubt that a good start is ideal, and helps to build resilience for possible future life challenges. But I would strongly argue that it’s never too early, never too late. There are risks and opportunities across the life cycle, and we know that the brain is still developing well into adolescence and beyond. Morally, we cannot give up on children.
Third, she makes little mention of the scarring impact of poverty. The government’s own website dedicated to the report states: “Children living in households in the lowest socio-economic groups have significantly worse health outcomes than other children.” There is no doubt that all families need some support at some time. But low-income families are likely to face more severe challenges.
Sure Start centres were originally located in low-income areas, and the programme had its biggest impact on children living in poverty. While a basic universal service is essential, we need to ensure that the families most likely to need extra support find it easiest to get it. If the problem is largely driven by poverty, perhaps we should try to make families less poor?