‘Urgent’ need to boost school-based support for families


A report co-led by the University of Leeds calls for joined up support around schools and nurseries to reduce absences, tackle the impact of poverty and boost children’s readiness for the day.

Schools and nurseries are often families’ first port of call when they need help, but more must be done to boost support around these educational settings, according to a new report by the Child of the North research group which includes University of Leeds academics, and the Centre for Young Lives think tank.

The next government must seize this moment and create a reimagined Sure Start 2.0.

Professor Mark Mon Williams, University of Leeds

The report builds on the foundations of ‘Sure Start’, a government scheme that introduced a network of children’s centres and support services from 1998.

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of The North report series editor and Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Leeds, said: “University research shows early support for children improves their health and later life prospects. Our nurseries and schools can help connect health and education and other services. This is the once in a generation chance to reverse the poor health of our population and create a healthy workforce. The next government must seize this moment and create a reimagined Sure Start 2.0.”

The evidence-based recommendations include setting up a national network of hubs in educational settings to provide supportive services like breakfast and after school clubs, holiday provision for childcare, family advice, mental health support, help for children with long-term health conditions and access to youth and social workers.

According to the researchers, the hubs could help provide childcare to help working parents, as well as creating safe places for children to learn and play outside of the formal classroom.

The impact of Sure Start

Analysis of evidence by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown how Sure Start made a significant difference to the educational outcomes of some of the most disadvantaged children, as well as improving health outcomes and boosting parental employment.

However, between 2010 and 2022 funding for Sure Start decreased by over two-thirds and over 1,300 centres closed. This happened alongside a 49% reduction in council spending on early intervention services for children between 2010/11 and 2017/8. At the same time, total expenditure on late interventions like youth justice, safeguarding and child protection, and looked-after children, has risen by 47%.

Since then, the report says the current Government has introduced its own Family Hubs, but these are on a small scale and, on current trajectories, it would take over 30 years to reach all the areas of disadvantage that Sure Start was going to reach. The Labour Party, meanwhile, has committed to funding new youth hubs as part of its plans to tackle serious violence, and has committed to universal breakfast clubs and a mental health support team in every school.

The new report says that providing schools with the support and resources they need to deliver more than just lessons in a classroom should be a priority. However, it warns that teachers, school staff, and current school budgets cannot be expected to deliver this ambition all on their own.

Long-term solutions needed 

Report author Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University said: “The best Sure Starts had parents and children helping to develop services with professionals. Schools now have the opportunity, working with Citizens UK, to involve the community in shaping together the kind of interagency hub that is most needed.

"We don’t need to reinvent the wheel - there are lots of school hub models to build on. But we need to avoid having a succession of short-term initiatives that come and go, leaving people with almost nothing, by having long-term developments that are properly funded and evaluated.”

The report says that with the right support network most schools have the potential to be the focus of a vital resource for children, families, and communities. It argues that schools are trusted anchor institutions accessed by most children and are often the first port of call when families need help. At the same time, schools have connections to organisations that can provide support.

The report shows how bringing schools together with services, the community, and other organisations (including voluntary groups, local service providers, local business, faith groups, and others) is already working in some parts of the country, but it is ad hoc and reliant on forward thinking multi-academy trusts, local authorities, or charities who already recognise the crucial role schools play in building strong communities.

The task is now urgent. The unsustainable amount our public services are spending on responding to crises is a sign that the present system is failing many families and children.

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives


The report makes a series of recommendations, including:

  • Calling on the main political parties to commit to developing a national strategy in government that puts schools at the heart of connected and co-delivered services for children and families. Schools are well-situated physical locations and a consistent point of contact for children, and well-positioned to act as hubs where services, the community, and a range of organisations including charities, local organisations, and business can be brought together. There are already innovative approaches being adopted which show how “outside school-gate services” such as dental care, mental health services, and youth work can be brought inside educational settings. 
  • Ring-fencing funding for schools so they can access and provide the programmes, activities, and services that meet the needs of local children and families. 
  • Encouraging holistic and collaborative working by co-producing connected services with children, young people, families, and the wider community. The report provides examples of school staff, parents, and children working with other providers such as charities, health services, businesses, and local authorities to produce positive change in their communities. 

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said:  “The days of some schools sitting in isolation from the rest of the community, shut up for the holidays, focused almost exclusively on exam results, should become a thing of the past. 

“This report shows how we can place schools at the heart of a fresh start for Sure Start around a core of breakfast clubs and after-school and holiday provision to provide childcare, local joined up services, and the sort of support that can transform neighbourhoods and life chances. 

“The task is now urgent. The unsustainable amount our public services are spending on responding to crises is a sign that the present system is failing many families and children.” 

The report is the fourth in a series of Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives reports to be published during 2024, focusing on how both the Government and Opposition can reset their vision for children, to put the life chances of young people at the heart of policy making and delivery.  

Further information 

Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office via email on pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk for further information.

Read the report, ‘An evidence-based plan to build the foundations of a new “Sure Start” in and around education settings’ on the N8 Research Partnership website. 

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