Family Hubs: Building on the Legacy of Sure Start Children’s Centres

by Dr Samantha Callan, Co-founder & Director of Family Hubs Network

The Centre for Social Justice invited Dr Samantha Callan to write the following blog for their website, originally published 1st December 2021.

Champagne corks began popping in late October when the Chancellor announced a £500m package for supporting families, including £82m specifically for developing Family Hubs in 75 local authorities. Almost 15 years ago, leading think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), pioneered the concept of a national network of Family Hubs.

These are easily accessible places in local communities which provide families with children and young people aged 0-19 (up to 25 if there are special educational needs and disabilities) early help to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships. They facilitate integrated working, deliver better outcomes for families, enable more effective service delivery, and smarter use of budgets. Their relational culture means parents and carers are treated as valued partners not recipients of services. Parenting support and help to reduce parental conflict are crucial to their offer which also, ideally, works with the family courts to help separated parents co-parent effectively.

Family Hubs’ first mention was in the CSJ’s landmark 2007 Breakthrough Britain report which focused on preventing family breakdown to help address poverty. Internationally we were leaders in the numbers of children growing up without both parents and had high levels of father absence and family dysfunction. The broader policy context to this report was the burgeoning rollout of Labour’s Sure Start Children’s Centre programme.

We should not take for granted what was achieved by this infrastructure programme which established over 3,500 community-based early years service points where new parents received valuable support, health care and advice. They made a significant difference to outcomes for many families and children.

Many of them recognised they had to help parents build skills and confidence not just in their role as mums and dads but also as prospective or actual employees and housing tenants. They provided employment, debt and housing advice in the knowledge that ‘child poverty’ has to be tackled by addressing the multiple reasons families struggle financially, which are not solely linked to income levels.

However, the central government funding package more or less exclusively required them to offer superb ‘early years’ services – budgets were very prescriptively sliced up and ring-fenced so there was very little room for exceeding the Sure Start specification. Couple support, for example, was rarely offered and had to be paid for out of additional funds which were hard to secure and often dried up after pilots were completed.

Yet the evidence the CSJ provided in 2007, and have continued to build on since, made it very clear that experiencing safe, stable and nurturing relationships throughout childhood, not just whilst a baby, is necessary to thrive, vitally important though the early years are.

In 2007 families with older children (aged 5-19) had very little access to preventive, early help, and services to reduce parental conflict were especially sparse. Yet relationships between parents set the tone for home life, even if they are no longer together. The last 15 years have seen an even greater decline in more general early help (as opposed to statutory child protection services and children’s social care).

The Independent Review for Children’s Social Care reported a 35% drop in funding since 2012 for what they refer to as family help, which overlaps significantly with the early help central to Family Hubs.

Moreover, in 2007 the CSJ also highlighted the lack of integration of the various family support services in local authority areas. This was despite many reports calling for them to be better joined-up, particularly Lord Laming’s review of failings contributing to the death of Victoria Climbie in 2003. The subsequent death of Baby Peter in 2008 further underlined this point and Lord Laming’s review of that second tragic case reiterated the need for services to work more seamlessly.

Key to that integration is the involvement of the voluntary and community sector – which means not just formal organisations but also community members. Again, there were occasional good examples of Children’s Centres drawing in the VCS and community volunteers, but many were islands – silos – of excellent help for the new parents who managed to find their way through their doors. Outreach was and remains a challenge, and the VCS can help greatly in identifying people who need family help and, as trusted intermediaries, helping them engage.

Finally, however good Children’s Centres are, they are necessary but not sufficient in family help systems. That is why Dame Andrea Leadsom MP emphasises the need to draw Children’s Centres into the local Family Hubs network of connected buildings, services and virtual help, at the heart of which are Family Hubs themselves.

So, Family Hubs are not just re-badged Sure Start but they build on its considerable legacy. They extend its founding vision of good quality family help, including couple relationship support, to ensure it is accessible to families not just in the early years but throughout childhood, and delivered in a relational and integrated manner. It’s a policy all political parties can get behind.

Dr Samantha Callan is the Co-founder and Director of Family Hubs Network.  She is a published academic who has been involved in research and policy development to strengthen families for the last two decades. She has written several influential policy reports on family breakdown, the importance of children’s early years, family law reform, early intervention, mental health and domestic abuse.  Dr Callan was Chair of The Centre for Social Justice’s Family Breakdown work from 2006-2015.

Dr Samantha Callan