The health impacts of universal early childhood interventions: evidence from Sure Start

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This research evaluates the short- and medium-term health impacts of Sure Start, a large-scale and universal early childhood programme in England. The programme provided Sure Start Centres across the country which operated as ‘one-stop shops’ for families with children under 5, bringing together a range of support including health services, parenting support programmes, and access to childcare and early education.

The researchers combine data on the exact location and opening date of Sure Start centres with administrative data on admissions to public-sector hospitals.

It finds  a 10 per cent increase in hospitalisations at age 1 (around 6,700 per year) for every additional Sure Start Centre per thousand age-eligible children. However, hospitalisations are reduced by 8-9 per cent (around 13,150 per year) across ages 11-15.

The researchers conclude that early childhood programmes that are less intensive than small-scale ‘model programs’ can deliver significant health benefits, even in contexts with universal healthcare. They add that the impacts are driven by hospitalisations for preventable conditions and are concentrated in disadvantaged areas, suggesting that enriching early childhood environments might be a successful strategy to reduce inequalities in health.