Children's centres reduce the gap in hospital admissions between rich and poor areas, a new study has found.
Launched 20 years ago as Sure Smart centres, the facilities aim to give children the best possible start in life by providing health, education and childcare services.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found the centres halve the hap in hospital admission rates between the UK's richest and poorest children.
UCL associate professor and IFS research fellow Gabriella Conti said it was clear there were “big benefits” for children.
“Relative to not having Sure Start, opening one centre for every 1,000 children prevents 5,500 hospital admissions of 11-year-olds each year,” she said.
“Since the benefits are biggest in the poorest neighbourhoods, access to Sure Start can help close around half the gap in hospitalisations between rich and poor areas.”
The new research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first of its kind to follow children who had access to Sure Start right through to the end of primary school and found a significant reduction in hospital admissions.
Researchers found providing peak access to Sure Start closed about half of the gap in hospital admission rates between the 30% poorest and 30% richest areas by the end of primary school.
Councillor Anntoinette Bramble, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said the centres could provide a lifeline.
She said: “This could be anything from advice for parents on physical and mental health, caring for a newborn, or simply a place for children to enjoy free play and interact with one another.”
But Ms Bramble said ever-tightening budgets were putting pressure on councils to cut or close services without central funding.
“Children’s services face a £3.1 billion funding gap by 2025,” she said.
“This is why it is hugely important that the Government delivers a long-term sustainable funding solution for children’s services in this year’s Spending Review.”
Described by former prime minister Tony Blair as “one of New Labour’s greatest achievements”, the centres were rolled out across the country but have been cut back by two-thirds since 2010, with 500 mothballed.
However, the research shows the direct savings to the NHS from fewer hospital admissions at ages five to 11 amount to about £5 million per cohort, or just 0.4% of average annual spending on Sure Start.
IFS research economist Christine Farquharson appealed to ministers to follow the evidence for where to invest.
She said: “Sure Start has had a turbulent history, with a fast roll-out followed by deep spending cuts, but these decisions were not always based on thorough evidence about the programme’s impacts on children and their families.
“Ahead of the Spending Review, it’s crucial that both central government and local authorities use the best evidence available to decide on their vision for Sure Start as the programme turns 20.
“Our findings suggest that limited resources are best focused on the poorest areas.”
Shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin said the loss of thousands of Sure Start centres through years of austerity was “shameful”.
“It’s heartbreaking that such a vital service, which helps disadvantaged children the most, has had two-thirds of its funding cut since the Tories came to power in 2010,” she said.
“Labour will end the cuts, provide sustainable funding for councils and invest £500 million in Sure Start to ensure that families and children get the support they need in the early years when we know it makes a huge difference.”