Earlier this month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published important new research into the health benefits of Sure Start.
Researchers found clear benefits of Sure Start Local Programmes in reducing hospital admissions by age 11, driven by reduced infections in the early years and fewer injuries in older children. Crucially, children in the poorest neighbourhoods were more likely to experience reduced hospital admissions – possibly because they were more likely to attend a centre.
The report found no effects of Sure Start on either childhood obesity or maternal mental health, although researchers stress that this does not mean there are no effects, just that they are not observable from the data available so far.
Nevertheless, the saving to the NHS of these hospital admissions reductions is estimated to be around £5 million. In addition, when longer-term savings to public health are also considered, researchers estimate that total savings grow to around £65 million (equivalent to 6 per cent of the annual Sure Start budget). Again, this could be a conservative estimate of total savings to the public purse, given the limitations of both the data and outcomes used in the study.
So, what does this mean for policy-makers?
In response to these findings, some have already argued that a return of 6 per cent is not enough to justify the programme. But, as well as the 6 per cent probably being an under-estimate of total savings, this argument also assumes that other areas of public spending are justifiable because they yield greater savings. We know, for example, that the academies programme has yielded little impact on attainment since 2010.
Like Sure Start, when academies were concentrated in the poorest-performing schools and areas prior to 2010, the programme had a discernible impact (equivalent to an improvement of one grade in each of five GCSEs), but since expanding significantly, the impact has been harder to observe.
The question of whether Sure Start expanded too widely and quickly is still contested. What is clear is that there have been clear positive evaluations of the programme – something which should not be lost as the spending review looms large.