From a Sure Start to a questionable future

Posted by Dan Breslin / Thursday 12 July 2018 / Children's centres Government spending Inequality

A lot has changed in 20 years.

Since 1998, Google has gone from a garage in California to homes and mobile phones across the world. European countries have gotten to grips with a whole new currency and the UK hasn’t welcomed back the Eurovision Song Contest.

It has also been 20 years this week since Gordon Brown delivered the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review. That has probably slipped people’s minds.

Amongst a number of new policies he announced £452 million for the creation of 250 Sure Start Local Programmes in the most deprived areas in England.

The Sure Start Local Programmes would ‘provide a range of easily accessible services, including childcare, primary health care, early education, and play and support, ideally within pram pushing distance.’

Today, these are better known as children’s centres.



The announcement was the culmination of work from ministers in government, most notably Dame Tessa Jowell who became one of the initiative’s loudest champions.

The programme expanded rapidly, with additional funding at successive budgets and spending reviews creating a network of 3,631 centres by April 2010.

The years since reaching those heights seem to have raised more doubts and questions about the future of children’s centres than answers.


Reforms in the early 2010s have left centres somewhat adrift. The main objectives of centres is vague, criticised by MPs and charities alike. Reduced funding has seen centres budgets fall by 53% in the last seven years. This has combined to leave local authorities pointing the finger of blame at central government for why centres are scaling back their work.

A consultation on the future of children’s centres was announced in 2015 but failed to materialise. The indifference to the suspension of Ofsted inspections, from government and the chief inspector, feels indicative of how children’s centres are no longer a priority.

And yet, visit any children’s centre in England and you will hear first-hand from parents about how important the help and support on offer is to them. From mums who struggled to bond with their newborns to dads who didn’t know how to create a good bedtime routine centres have been, and still are, an invaluable source of support.

"My local children’s centre was a lifeline for me when I had trouble bonding with my baby due to Post Natal Depression. They were so helpful & understanding. I truly believe that my son and I wouldn't be here without the help and support I received."

Parent, Hampshire

Last year, in our children’s centres alone, we worked with more than 8,000 children who had specific challenges like speech and language problems. Thanks to work from different politicians stretching back 20 years, there is a system in place for these children to get the help they need.

Losing the network of centres and the services they provide doesn’t bare thinking about. It is something we aren’t prepared to see happen. You can sign our petition calling on the Government to act and lead a review to set a fresh direction for early years services.

A lot has changed in twenty years. We need to make sure that children’s centres get to celebrate their 40th birthday with more certainty that they are celebrating their 20th.

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