The Week

The Week 14 April 2024

Patrick King
Senior Researcher

It’s been a quiet recess week in Westminster (we can only assume because people are still busy chewing over Reform’s major report on health devolution, published last week 😉). But fresh analysis on the impact of Sure Start, from our friends at the IFS, caught our attention.

Sure Start, introduced in 1999, was a central part of New Labour’s approach to early years services, providing “holistic support” to families with children under the age of 5. These “one-stop shops” brought together a range of services under one roof — from parenting support to childcare and health services — and until 2003, also had a major focus on outreach and home visits. At their peak, they received around a third of the total early years budget, with 3,500 centres operating nationally.

While previous evaluations have found notable, short-term impacts from the centres, including on family functioning, emotional development and health outcomes, the IFS’ analysis this week provides a more long-term view. It concludes that children living close to a Sure Start centre performed significantly better in exams (0.8 grades better at GCSE-level, on average), with greater lifetime earnings, than those who didn’t.

Children from the poorest backgrounds benefited most, with the effects for pupils eligible for free school meals up to six times greater than those not eligible. Perhaps most interesting, is the finding that these positive effects were “entirely driven” by centres which existed before 2003 (Sure Start Local Programmes) — which involved much higher levels of community input and local innovation — and were not seen in the post-2003 centres (Sure Start Children’s Centres), which “became more uniform and standardised”.

As the IFS argues, some of this can be attributed to funding differences (SSLPs were better funded per centre), and the services they were able to offer, but the fact that SSLPs were more “locally driven” and had more “community input” is an important factor to consider. Worthwhile reading for anyone considering how to design open-access community health (and mental health) hubs

Onto our read of the week…

This week we’ve been reading the FT’s view on metro mayors and found ourselves nodding enthusiastically in agreement. As they point out, the powers afforded to mayors have already helped expand economic opportunity: from the development of new tram networks and bus systems, to programmes focused on addressing skills shortages. But “England needs wider and deeper devolution”, since without it policymaking is unlikely to be “in sync with local needs”.

As the FT argues, there is potential to go much further, both in the overall number of devolution deals and the powers mayors hold, including the ability to retain and spend more tax locally and take on additional commissioning powers. Watch this space for Reform’s recommendations on the future of the combined authorities and metro mayors.