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EIF report

Planning early childhood services in 2020: Learning from practice and research on children’s centres and family hubs

This report sets out to understand contemporary local practice relating to children's centres and family hubs, and to explore how far this current practice, alongside existing research and evidence, can guide the future development of these important aspects of early childhood services.



Full report



It is based on practice learning from qualitative interviews and focus groups with stakeholders in 14 local areas across England, and a rapid review of the evidence relating to how children's centres and hubs are designed and delivered.

The report explores four main questions relating to how children’s centres and family hubs are designed and delivered:

  • What are children’s centres and hubs for?
  • Who are children’s centres and hubs for?
  • What are the most effective ways of delivering children’s centres and hubs?
  • How important are evidence-based interventions to children’s centres and hubs?


Sure Start and children’s centres have been an important, ambitious and evolving part of maternity and early years national policy and local services for the past two decades.

Since the introduction of revised statutory guidance for children’s centres in 2013 there has been an increasing diversity of local delivery approaches as local authorities respond to changes in population need and public funding. This includes adapted approaches to delivering local place-based whole family services, such as family and integrated hubs. This increasing diversity of approaches is the focus of our review. 

It is important to note that this work is not a review of statutory guidance for children’s centres, nor is it an evaluation of the effectiveness of children’s centres. It is a review to understand rather than prove, and it uses the experience of local experts in delivering children’s centres and hubs to do so.

Early childhood services
The term ‘early childhood services’ is used in statute to describe the main components of a local maternity and early years system:
– early years provision (early education and childcare)
– social services functions of the local authority relating to young children, parents and prospective parents
– health services relating to young children, parents and prospective parents
– training and employment services to assist parents or prospective parents
– information and advice services for parents and prospective parents.

Children’s centres
Children’s centres are described in current statute as ‘a place or group of places which local authorities use to secure integrated early childhood services to young children, parents and prospective parents with the aim of improving outcomes for young children and their families and reduce inequalities, particularly for those families in greatest need of support.’
Children’s centres are often seen as a physical building where services for families are delivered, but they are also a delivery mechanism through which early childhood services are made available in a joined-up way. 

Main findings

  1. The lack of recent national monitoring and evaluation of approaches to children’s centres and hubs means that there is little robust evidence on how they are currently being delivered and how effective they are.
  2. Children’s centres and hubs across England in 2020 are context-specific and diverse, and lack a consistent way of specifying and evaluating different approaches.
  3. Local areas are increasingly connecting early childhood services with whole family services and focusing on targeted support. But they continue to make the case for sufficiently resourced, open-access centres in order to reach and support vulnerable families.
  4. The lack of evidence for contemporary approaches makes it difficult to be conclusive about what works in delivering children’s centres and hubs. 
  5. Progress in growing the effective use of evidence-based interventions as part of early childhood services appears to be at risk, due to funding pressures and a lack of robust local evaluation.

Supporting local areas

In light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, practical support for the local planning of early childhood services, including children’s centres and hubs, is even more urgently required than when this review first began. The report identifies four key ways in which this support could be provided.

  1. Specifying the local approach
  2. Using and generating evidence
  3. Sharing learning
  4. Creating the conditions for local change.

Reaction to the review

Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Children and Young People board of the Local Government Association (LGA), said:

‘As this report makes clear, councils have had to look for new ways to provide services and make sure that children and families are getting the support they need even as council budgets have reduced. This of course has its challenges, and this report offers helpful learning to support councils as they continue to redesign children’s centre services in light of further budget reductions, increasing demand and the pressures of Covid-19.
‘We look forward to continuing to work with EIF to share learning and support councils to take evidence-based approaches that can deliver the best outcomes for children and families.’

Jenny Coles, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said:

‘This report poses some important questions for local authorities and central government alike. It also underlines the need for a broader early childhood strategy, one that brings together early education with childcare, health and workforce considerations too.
‘Now more than ever we need to work with children and families who are at risk of poor outcomes at the earliest possible stage. ADCS is clear about the value of early support and prevention for children and their families, particularly during early childhood when we have the greatest opportunity to make a tangible difference to a child’s prospects. Let’s hope this report triggers some much-needed debate.’

About the author

Ben Lewing

Ben is assistant director, policy & practice, at EIF.