Sure Start Children's Centres - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

1 The development of Children's Centres

What are Children's Centres?

3.  Sure Start Children's Centres are designed to offer children under five years of age and their families access to integrated early childhood services "when and where they need them".[3] Many are accommodated in their own premises; others share premises or are based on several sites, with the defining feature being their unique way of getting public agencies to work together rather than a bricks and mortar presence. As noted above, the Government's intention was that by March 2010 there will be one Centre "for every community": 3,500 Centres across England. Over 3,100 Centres had been designated by October 2009.[4] The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 places a duty on local authorities to establish and maintain sufficient numbers of Children's Centres in their area to meet local needs.

4.  The definition of a Children's Centre in the Childcare Act 2006, as amended by the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, is

"a place, or a group of places

a) which is managed by or on behalf of, or under arrangements made with, an English local authority, with a view to securing that early childhood services in their area are made available in an integrated manner;

b) through which each of the early childhood services is made available; and

c) at which activities for young children are provided, whether by way of early years provision or otherwise."[5]

The definition of "early childhood services" is in the Childcare Act 2006. It covers: early years provision, social services relating to young children, parents or prospective parents, the provision of assistance in accessing employment and training to parents, and the provision of information and assistance to parents about childcare and any other relevant services. The Department has set out the range of services which all Children's Centres must provide (known as the 'core offer'):

  • Information and advice to parents on a range of subjects including looking after babies and young children, the availability of local services such as childcare;
  • Drop-in sessions and activities for parents, carers and children;
  • Outreach and family support services, including visits to all families within two months of a child's birth;
  • Child and family health services, including access to specialist services for those who need them;
  • Links with Jobcentre Plus for training and employment advice; and
  • Support for local childminders and a childminding network.

5.  Children's Centres serving the 30% most deprived communities must in addition offer integrated early education and childcare places for a minimum of 5 days a week, 10 hours a day, 48 weeks a year.[6] Children's Centres outside these areas need not include full-day childcare unless there is unmet demand in the area, but all Centres are expected to have some activities for children on site.[7] New Children's Centres are 'designated' and counted towards the total number when they have a specified minimum level of services and plans for further services in place. The full range of core offer services must be in place within two years of designation—by September 2009, 55% of designated Centres were deemed to be delivering the full core offer.[8] Children's Centres also have flexibility to host or deliver additional services according to their assessment of local need, and so the range of activities taking place under their aegis can be vast.

6.  A list of services, however, cannot adequately capture the ethos and ambition of Sure Start Children's Centres. Jenny Martin, leader of the Leys Children's Centre in Oxford described the experience that The Leys offers for families and children, a picture familiar from our experiences of other well-established Centres:

Much of the provision is 'open access', and there is additional specialist support for more vulnerable families. In an open access session we see a real variety of families. There are mothers with experience of post-natal depression, children and mothers with trauma from domestic violence, whole families with borderline child protection concerns and often, families who are simply lonely through being newly arrived on a big and seemingly scary estate. Frequently, families experiencing these difficulties do not have any extended family support and so the opportunity to meet with other families is invaluable and effective in reducing their isolation. When parents come along to these sessions, they find a sense of community, playmates for their children and perhaps a friend or other who has been through similar experiences. They will be offered opportunities to further their own learning or personal development and perhaps specialist intervention (e.g. through a lead professional or key worker). We see vulnerable children befriending or at least playing alongside more confident, well socialised children. Again, we know from EPPE[9] that these experiences can really begin to break (costly) cycles of deprivation.[10]

The evolution of Sure Start Children's Centres

7.  Sure Start Children's Centres were preceded by several distinct early years initiatives: Early Excellence Centres, the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative, and Sure Start Local Programmes.


8.  In the late 1990s, research arising from a number of experimental projects, principally in the United States, encouraged efforts to think about how better services for very young children could improve life outcomes and reduce public spending in the long term. These programmes included Head Start, the Perry Pre-School Programme, Chicago Child-Parent Centres and the Abecedarian Project. There is some debate as to the extent to which the initiatives which were then adopted in the UK were based on this body of evidence—Norman Glass, the Treasury official who led the cross-departmental review of services for young children in 1998, preferred the term "evidence-influenced".[11] Nevertheless, the evidence base was used to make the case that comprehensive early years interventions could produce better long-term outcomes for children, and that some sort of programme should therefore be developed for an age group hitherto relatively neglected by policymakers.[12]

9.  A wide range of early years experts were involved in the cross-departmental review that resulted. The review's findings were that disadvantage among young children was increasing, while services were often patchy in coverage and quality, uncoordinated, and focused on older children. Lack of inter-agency collaboration on early child health services and the poor record of health screening at detecting 'high prevalence but low severity' conditions such as delayed language acquisition were a particular concern.[13]


10.  The policy response was Sure Start and what became known as Sure Start Local Programmes. In the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government announced funding of £450 million over the years 1999-2002 to set up 250 projects in areas with very high concentrations of children under four living in poverty. Each project would run for seven to ten years and would have a ring-fenced budget due to peak in year three and taper to zero at year ten. Service providers in the country's 20% most deprived wards were invited to form partnerships, nominate lead agencies, and submit bids. The first 60 Sure Start Local Programmes were announced in 1999, managed by a Sure Start Unit within the then Department for Education and Employment but overseen by a cross-departmental committee. Expansion of the initiative was announced in 2000, and by the time the final SSLPs were awarded in 2003, the total number was 524. Jay Belsky and Edward Melhuish of the evaluation team described the programme thus:

SSLPs were intended to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty, school failure and social exclusion by enhancing the life chances for children less than four years of age growing up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. More importantly, they were intended to do so in a manner rather different from almost any other intervention undertaken in the western world.[14]

11.  The principles on which the programmes were to be based included working with parents and the community as well as children, integrating previously discrete services, and making services easily accessible (no more than 'pram-pushing distance' from the target users). There was, however, no detailed specification of services or particular interventions; instead, programmes were to be driven by the needs and wishes of the community in which they were based, and would be held to account only for the outcomes they produced. This flexibility was a key part of the initiative's distinctiveness. Nonetheless, it was expected that programmes would provide family support, outreach and home visiting, support for good quality play, learning and childcare experiences for the under-fours, health care and advice, and support for families with special needs. The National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) commenced in 2001 and is ongoing.


12.  Introduced in December 1997 and funded until March 2006, Early Excellence Centres were intended to develop models of good practice in integrating early education and childcare for under-fives in existing provision, supported by adult education and training, parenting support, health and other community services. There was a strong emphasis on the role EECs should play in raising the quality of early education and learning by sharing good practice and organising training and development for local practitioners; EECs were intended to be a catalyst for change across the sector. Settings were selected from competing bids on the basis of the quality of what was already in place and their potential to develop a range of integrated services through outreach and collaboration. Two-thirds of the pilot EECs were located in wards in the bottom 20% of the deprivation indices. There were eventually 107 EECs. The Early Excellence Centres evaluation highlighted the impact of good leadership and management, a shared philosophy and working practices across services, cohesive multi-agency teams, a responsive and flexible approach to community needs, and a clear focus on quality.[15]


13.  Launched in 2001, the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative aimed to make high quality, convenient and affordable childcare available for working parents in poor neighbourhoods. Places were targeted at reducing unemployment and meeting the needs of parents entering the job market, especially lone parents. Childcare provision in the 20% most disadvantaged areas of England was to be expanded by creating 45,000 new daycare places for children aged 0-5 by 2004. Much of this was to be delivered through the extension or refurbishment of existing nurseries, with some new settings developed from scratch. Ideally, full daycare for children from birth to school age would be provided alongside other forms of family support such as family learning or health services. The target for new childcare places was reached in August 2004, with approximately 1,400 settings involved. The project's evaluation indicated that the take-up of NNI places was relatively low, with approximately one in ten of the "work-ready" parents in relevant disadvantaged neighbourhoods using the facility. However, of those parents that did make use of the provision, 20% said they were in work but would not have been if the nursery had not been available, and 28% would not have been using any sort of formal childcare but for the Neighbourhood Nursery.[16]


14.  The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education research project initially investigated the effects of pre-school education and care on the development of children aged 3-7. The EPPE team collected a wide range of information on 3,000 children who were recruited at age 3+ and studied until the end of Key Stage 1. Pre-school settings attended by the children were drawn from a range of providers: local authority day nurseries, integrated centres (including some of the pilot Early Excellence Centres), playgroups, private day nurseries, nursery schools and nursery classes. A sample of children who had no or minimal pre-school experience were recruited to the study at entry to school for comparison with the pre-school group. Key findings of the research included that: disadvantaged children benefit significantly from good quality pre-school experiences, especially when in a setting with children from a mix of social backgrounds; while good quality existed in all types of settings, quality was higher overall in nursery schools, and in settings integrating childcare and education (such as Early Excellence Centres); settings whose staff had higher qualifications had higher quality scores and their children made more progress; and quality indicators included a trained teacher as manager and a good proportion of trained teachers on the staff.[17] In 2010 the latest findings from the EPPE research were published, reporting that children at age 11 still show benefits from attendance at high-quality pre-schools.[18]


15.  In 2004 the creation and rollout of Sure Start Children's Centres was announced. The launch of the Children's Centres 'brand' was intended to rationalise and mainstream the preceding initiatives, incorporating lessons from the evaluations that had been carried out on each one. In particular, the shift to Children's Centres was prompted by disappointing early evaluations of the impact of Sure Start Local Programmes, and the findings of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project about the impact of good quality integrated education and care, such as that offered in Early Excellence Centres. Children's Centres have been rolled out in three phases. All Sure Start Local Programmes and Early Excellence Centres, and most Neighbourhood Nurseries, became Sure Start Children's Centres in the first two phases of the rollout. The table on the following page details the requirements for Centres in each of the phases, and compares them to the predecessor initiatives.

16.  The Sure Start programme as a whole is one of the most innovative and ambitious Government initiatives of the past two decades. We have heard almost no negative comment about its intentions and principles; it has been solidly based on evidence that the early years are when the greatest difference can be made to a child's life chances, and in many areas it has successfully cut through the silos that so often bedevil public service delivery. Children's Centres are a substantial investment with a sound rationale, and it is vital that this investment is allowed to bear fruit over the long term. Characteristics and services of Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) and Sure Start Children's Centres

3   Ev 179 Back

4   Ev 180 Back

5   Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, section 198 Back

6   'Integrated early education and care' refers to a provision in which staff take a pedagogic approach to the child's development as well as catering to the needs of the child's family-among these the need for parents to have a childcare facility enabling them to work. According to the Early Excellence Centres evaluation, the staff of an integrated provision have a shared philosophy and working practices, and the user will experience the provision as a cohesive whole. Back

7   Ev 181 Back

8   Memorandum by the National Audit Office, Sure Start Children's Centres (December 2009), paragraph 1.4 Back

9   The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project; see paragraph 14 below Back

10   Ev 276 Back

11   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900-II, Q 995; Jay Belsky, Jacqueline Barnes and Edward Melhuish (eds.), The National Evaluation of Sure Start: does area-based intervention work? (Bristol 2007), pp 198-201 Back

12   Belsky, Barnes and Melhuish (eds.), The National Evaluation of Sure Start, p 4; Q 8 [Professor Melhuish] Back

13   Belsky, Barnes and Melhuish (eds.), The National Evaluation of Sure Start, p 8 Back

14   Belsky, Barnes and Melhuish (eds.), The National Evaluation of Sure Start, p 133 Back

15   C. Pascal, A.D. Bertram, S. Holtermann, K. Joh, M. Gasper, S. Bokhari,National Early Excellence Centre Pilot Programme Evaluation Year 3 Report (DfES 2004) Back

16   National Evaluation of the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative: Integrated Report (DfES 2007) Back

17   Kathy Sylva et al, The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project (DfES 2004) Back

18   Kathy Sylva et al, Early Childhood Matters: evidence from the Effective Pre-School and Primary Education Project (2010) Back

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