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Sure Start

New report calls for ‘fresh start for Sure Start’

Published on: 10 May 2024

The document written by Professor Liz Todd, sets out the case for a new updated model of Sure Start that puts schools and nurseries at its heart.

A vision for children

Building the foundations of a new ‘Sure Start’: An evidence-based plan for connecting and coordinating support and services in and around education settings proposes a national network of ‘hubs’ in educational settings that can provide services such as:

• School breakfast clubs
• After school and holiday provision to help with childcare
• Access to family support and advice
• Support for children with early years development
• Access to mental health support for children and young people
• Help for children with long-term health conditions
• Access to youth workers and social workers

Analysis of evidence by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown how Sure Start made a significant difference to the educational outcomes of some of the most disadvantaged children, as well as improving health outcomes and boosting parental employment. However, between 2010 and 2022 funding for Sure Start decreased by over two-thirds and over 1,300 centres closed. This happened alongside a 49% reduction in council spending on early intervention services for children between 2010/11 and 2017/8. At the same time, total expenditure on late interventions like youth justice, safeguarding and child protection, and looked-after children, has risen by 47%.

Since then, the current Government has introduced its own Family Hubs, but these are on a small scale and, on current trajectories, it would take over 30 years to reach all the areas of disadvantage that Sure Start was going to reach. The Labour Party, meanwhile, has committed to funding new youth hubs as part of its plans to tackle serious violence, and has committed to universal breakfast clubs and a mental health support team in every school.

Today’s report says that providing schools with the support and resources they need to deliver more than just lessons in a classroom should be a priority. However, it warns that teachers, school staff, and current school budgets cannot be expected to deliver this ambition all on their own.

It argues that nobody needs to come up with radical new ideas: policies such as Sure Start Children’s Centres, Every Child Matters, Extended Schools, and Family Hubs already provide principles for what works and what has been less successful, and can be applied in a new and creative way to meet children’s and families’ needs today.

Report author Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion in Newcastle University's School of Education,Communication and Language Sciences, said:

"The best Sure Starts had parents and children helping to develop services with professionals. Schools now have the opportunity, working with Citizens UK, to involve the community in shaping together the kind of interagency hub that is most needed.

"We don’t need to reinvent the wheel - there are lots of school hub models to build on. But we need to avoid having a succession of short-term initiatives that come and go, leaving people with almost nothing, by having long-term developments that are properly funded and evaluated."

The report is the fourth in a series of Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives reports to be published during 2024, focusing on how both the Government and Opposition can reset their vision for children, to put the life chances of young people at the heart of policy making and delivery.


Anchor institutions

The report says that with the right support network most schools have the potential to be the focus of a vital resource for children, families, and communities. It argues that schools are trusted anchor institutions accessed by most children and are often the first port of call when families need help. At the same time, schools have connections to organisations that can provide support.
The report shows how bringing schools together with services, the community, and other organisations (including voluntary groups, local service providers, local business, faith groups, and others) is already working in some parts of the country, but it is ad hoc and reliant on forward thinking multi-academy trusts, local authorities, or charities who already recognise the crucial role schools play in building strong communities.

The report makes a series of recommendations, including:

• Calling on the main political parties to commit to developing a national strategy in government that puts schools at the heart of connected and co-delivered services for children and families. Schools are well-situated physical locations and a consistent point of contact for children, and well-positioned to act as hubs where services, the community, and a range of organisations including charities, local organisations, and business can be brought together. There are already innovative approaches being adopted which show how “outside school-gate services” such as dental care, mental health services, and youth work can be brought inside educational settings.

• Ring-fencing funding for schools so they can access and provide the programmes, activities, and services that meet the needs of local children and families, such as breakfast clubs, before- and after-school provision and holiday clubs, in-school dedicated health and support teams, provision or signposting to other out-of-school youth, adult learning, and community provision.

• Encouraging holistic and collaborative working by co-producing connected services with children, young people, families, and the wider community. The report provides examples of school staff, parents, and children working with other providers such as charities, health services, businesses, and local authorities to produce positive change in their communities.

Teh report states there is growing evidence that services can work together, and deliver benefits from doing so, even when finances are stretched. New ways of linking services are emerging that are based on the understanding that children’s needs across different aspects of their lives and service domains are completely connected. It calls on Integrated Care Boards and Integrated Care Services to take this opportunity to develop imaginative collaborations between health and other services. Using data more effectively between agencies will also assist more timely inter-agency collaboration and better services.

The report highlights the Born in Bradford project which has showcased the potential of connecting data between different services to encourage an integrated approach to care. Similar approaches to linking data are being adopted by other projects across the North of England including in Leeds, Doncaster, Wakefield, and Liverpool.

It also provides examples where innovative, creative approaches to early intervention around schools are having tangible results:

• The West End Children’s Community (WECC) in the West of Newcastle is a place-based community initiative that has been developed by a partnership of local organisations, aimed at generational change in the face of persistent and rising poverty. The anchor institutions at the centre of this initiative are eight primary schools from the West End Schools Trust and Newcastle University. The WECC prioritises inclusion and empowerment of their community, knowing local people possess knowledge, strengths, and skills. The organisation works in partnership to provide responses to poverty from “cradle to career” for children, by bringing together sectors that may not usually collaborate, such as education, health services, the local authority, culture, and voluntary services. They provide networking opportunities, information sharing, and takes purposeful, evidence-based collaborative action to stimulate change. Key activities have included an annual STEM event for local primary school children, a family mental health program, planning of out-of-school activities and a pre-reading programme.

• Surrey Square Primary School, located in South London, has embarked on a mission to create a supportive environment that addresses the holistic needs of its students and their families, designing its curriculum and practices around the needs of the community, rather than an expectation that the community fits into its model. A core part of that work is the role of the “family and community coordinator”, who is employed by the school and is focused entirely on building relationships with parents and community members.

• In Bradford, the Education Alliance for Life Chances (EALC) was formed as a legacy recommendation from Bradford’s Opportunity Area to sustain progress on social mobility. Each Opportunity Area worked in partnership with local nurseries, schools, colleges, businesses, and charities to overcome the barriers that hold back some children. EALC is led by the leaders of multi-academy trusts, local authority, health trusts, policing, universities, and faith groups. In Bradford, EALC has partnered with the Centre for Applied Education Research (CAER) to bring research to schools and early years settings, effectively placing it as the district’s Research and Development department. This includes connecting children’s data and enabling information sharing to improve safeguarding and efficiencies, demonstrate trends and tackle poor school attendance, and identify children at an increased likelihood of autism.

• The report also highlights the work of Oasis schools, such as the Oasis Academy Hadley in Enfield, which has spent many years building relationships and trust with the local community, so that there is a close bond between the school, with its bustling reception area open to parents to come in and chat or ask for advice, and the wider local community. Hadley’s youth centre, with its after-school facilities including sport, music, and discussion groups, sits geographically and emotionally connected to the school. Across the road is the Oasis family/community support centre, which provides help and advice to local families, including food, help with paying bills, advice and support with services, and community activities from early years onwards. This joined up, integrated offer to children and local families is a model for others to follow.

A moment of change

The report was published by Child of the North and Anne Longfield’s Centre for Young Lives think tank.

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said:

“The dismantling and hollowing out of Sure Start since 2010, alongside the big cuts in early intervention funding, was a historic mistake and incredibly short-sighted. As the recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows, Sure Start was making a significant difference to the educational outcomes of some of the most disadvantaged children, as well as improving health outcomes. While many Family Hubs are doing good things, the network just does not begin to match the scale and scope of Sure Start.

“We cannot turn back time and, with little new money available to rebuild an infrastructure of this scale and impact from scratch, we need to look for new and creative ways to deliver more joined-up support for vulnerable families as their children grow up.
“The days of some schools sitting in isolation from the rest of the community, shut up for the holidays, focused almost exclusively on exam results, should become a thing of the past.

“This report shows how we can place schools at the heart of a fresh start for Sure Start around a core of breakfast clubs and after-school and holiday provision to provide childcare, local joined up services, and the sort of support that can transform neighbourhoods and life chances.

“The task is now urgent. The unsustainable amount our public services are spending on responding to crises is a sign that the present system is failing many families and children.

“This can be an exciting, ambitious moment of change for children and families. Whoever wins the next election, has an opportunity to deliver it.”

Dr Camilla Kingdon, former President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:
“I am so delighted with this report and its recommendations. We aren’t trying to bring back the past, despite many child health professionals knowing that Sure Start had a huge impact on many children and families. What this is, is a brave re-imagining of how a new version of Sure Start might look and how it could make a seismic impact on children’s lives. Nurseries and schools are a hugely under-utilised resource and the recommendations of this report allow us to realise the huge potential of the education system to be an anchor for creating a solid foundation for the health and wellbeing of our children.

“As a paediatrician I am excited by the potential benefits this could bring. Bringing health and education together must be our collective vision for the future.”

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of The North report series editor, said:
“University research shows early support for children improves their health and later life prospects. Our nurseries and schools can help connect health and education and other services. This is the once in a generation chance to reverse the poor health of our population and create a healthy workforce. The next government must seize this moment and create a reimagined Sure Start 2.0.”


Press release adapted with thanks to Centre for Young Lives.


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