Evaluating the short- and medium-term impacts of Sure Start

Project overview


This project will evaluate the impact of Sure Start on child development, building on previous research.

Sure Start has been one of England’s major early years policies, offering a ‘one-stop-shop’ for families with children under five. It was introduced in 1999 as Local Programmes in disadvantaged communities and later expanded into a universal service as Children’s Centres throughout England. In 2010 it operated around 3,500 centres, but since then the programme has had its funding cut by two-thirds and the future of the programme is uncertain. A vast body of evidence shows that early childhood interventions can significantly shift children’s developmental trajectories, but that some interventions have more lasting positive impacts than others. The team’s previous research found that greater access to Sure Start significantly reduced hospitalisations among primary school children in disadvantaged areas. This project will analyse the programme’s effects on a broader range of outcomes, provide evidence for the potential mechanisms underlying the programme’s effects, and monetise them with a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.

The researchers will conduct four strands of work, analysing both large administrative datasets and novel quantitative and qualitative data. They will primarily focus on understanding Sure Start’s impacts during the expansion period (1999-2010), covering both Local Programmes (1999-2004) and Children’s Centres before the removal of the ring-fencing around Sure Start funding in 2010. This will make it possible to estimate impacts on outcomes up to early adolescence.

The first strand of research will comprise an impact evaluation that exploits variation in access to Sure Start generated by the staggered rollout of the programme across England to compare the outcomes of children living in the same neighbourhood who experienced more or less access to Sure Start in their first five years of life. It will assess impact on a range of children’s outcomes including education test scores, school exclusions, illness related and unauthorised school absences, juvenile crime, and the use of social care and special educational needs services. This will complement ongoing work to evaluate Sure Start’s impacts on mothers’ mental health and employment outcomes. The researchers will examine whether impacts differ across different groups of children by gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free school meals and neighbourhood characteristics, and will also examine whether impacts differ across different types of centres, particularly Local Programmes versus Children’s Centres.

The second and third strands of research will put the evaluation in context. The second strand will gather new quantitative data from local authorities on the take-up of Sure Start services, characterising how provision and take-up have changed over time and how much of this is explained by local authority characteristics. This will enable the researchers to estimate whether Sure Start’s impacts are greater in areas with higher take-up or where specific types of services are on offer. The third strand will conduct qualitative research into parents’ experiences of Sure Start services. While the fourth strand will draw together the research from the previous strands with research into Sure Start’s effects on hospitalisations, maternal employment and mental health. These impacts will be monetised into a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. This research aims to deliver the first evaluation of the causal impacts of Sure Start on a range of medium-term outcomes. Ultimately, this work should help shape the future of England’s early years landscape by providing strong evidence on the merits of allocating public funds to universal early years services.

Latest on this project


Team


  • Sarah Cattan
    Institute for Fiscal Studies

  • Programme Head, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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