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Sure Start Services: United Kingdom

UK initiative boosts social inclusion for children in targeted disadvantaged areas

June 5, 2023
Author: Ritwick Dutta

Sure Start was first implemented in 1998. While Sure Start is ongoing, the number of centers has been significantly reduced. It operated in low-income areas to address geographic disparities in children’s health and education inequalities. Sure Start provided a range of services for children 0-4 years old to ensure the “best possible start in life” through improved childcare, early education, home visits, support for families, and support to children with special needs.1 At its height in 2010, there were 3,500 Sure Start Children’s Centers.

The quality of service provision for young children and their families in the United Kingdom (UK) varied enormously across localities, with uncoordinated and patchy services being the norm in many areas, particularly for programs for children under the age of four. The Sure Start program aimed to plug the gap in low-income areas by building on existing services and providing access and availability of a range of services covering five key areas:

  • Outreach services and home visits building on existing services;
  • Support for families and parents, including social support such as mentoring and parenting information;2
  • Services to support good quality play, learning and childcare for children;
  • Primary and community healthcare and advice about child health and development, as well as parental health;
  • Support for those with special needs, including conferring access to specialized services.

The local centers also had the liberty to provide services that they deemed to be pertinent according to the needs of the community, creating more specialized centers and opportunities for better services.


The Sure Start programme was announced in Parliament in 1998. In 1999, cross-departmental groups, including those across health, education, local environment, family welfare, as well as local government and the third sector, were set up to devise and implement the first 60 Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs). By 2000, the number of SSLPs had multiplied to 500.

By 2005, significant changes were made to the original concept. The program shifted from a focus on low-income areas of the UK, where there are reduced services for children and families, to universal deployment for all children living in poverty. There would be a Sure Start Children’s Center in every community, reaching a total of 3,500 centers by 2010.3 Meanwhile, responsibility shifted from the government to local authorities.


Revenue funding had reached around GBP 1.1 billion by 2010-11, and in addition to the GBP 430 million capital spending between 1999-2006, the total funds spent on setting up these children’s centers totalled GBP 1 billion.4


In the first few years of Sure Start there were positive changes in the local areas in which the programs operated, including a substantial increase in the provision of child care, improvements in child health, and a reduction in health inequality (i.e., fewer hospitalizations) between wealthy and poorer areas.5 There were also fewer emergency admissions to hospital, saving the National Health Service (NHS) millions of pounds.6 The National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) team from Birkbeck, University of London, found in 2008 that SSLP areas compared to non-SSLP areas saw improved children’s behavioral development, home life and learning environments accessible to the child, and health outcomes. At the same time, parents increased use of local services.7

After a change in government in 2010 that introduced austerity, cuts led the number of centers to be reduced by 1,000 and funding decreased by two-thirds. The spending cuts were not decisions8 based on a thorough examination of the program, and the closure of Sure Start centers attracted criticism9 from many experts who argued Sure Start played an important role in supporting families and addressing unmet needs of children living in poverty.10

In February 2023, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a plan to introduce the “Family Hubs” scheme where the government will invest GBP 300 million to support struggling families, though the funding alone does not match pre-austerity levels in spending for early education.11

Additional Information

The rationale for investing in services for young children was that if you could ameliorate the negative impact of poverty on children, you could break the cycle of deprivation and improve life chances. However, some experts suggest that initiatives through Sure Start may not be enough on their own to break the cycle of deprivation, and that addressing income inequality is a crucial step towards improving outcomes for all.12

Multiple sources, including user satisfaction surveys and qualitative case studies show that Sure Start centers have had positive impacts on individual lives by fostering the development of confidence, skills, and social networks, in addition to being popular places for parents and children to enjoy playing and socializing.13 The Children, Schools, and Families Committee report highlights that parents often describe the impact of their engagement with Children’s Centres as “life-changing” and that there is a widespread belief that Children’s Centers provide benefits and would reduce the need for costly and intrusive interventions later in children’s lives.14