Little progress made in closing the development gap in children over a decade - IFS

Katy Morton
Thursday, June 23, 2022

Inequalities in early cognitive, social and emotional development of children in the UK have remained ‘stubbornly high’, according to a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

The research from the IFS compares the development of children born in the early 2000's and a decade later, PHOTO Adobe Stock
The research from the IFS compares the development of children born in the early 2000's and a decade later, PHOTO Adobe Stock

The research, which compares children born in the early 2000s to those born a decade later, reveals little change to gaps in development between the children of high and low-educated mothers, and between children living in more and less deprived areas.

It says this is despite ‘unprecedented’ public investments in the early years over the past 20 years, and evidence that targeted policy interventions – in particular Sure Start – had positive impacts on the poorest families and children.

However, it finds that there have been improvements in some aspects of early home environments, such as the frequency with which parents read to their children, but deteriorations in other aspects of the home environment, such as the rising prevalence of maternal mental health problems.

The authors argue that persistence of the inequalities likely reflect the complex and multiple factors affecting child development and the fact that much of the increased public spending has been on childcare places and funding for over twos, while the ‘primary determinants of early development are in the family home’ and from the very ‘earliest stages of life.’

The research on UK inequalities in early childhood, which was carried out for the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, also finds:

  • Children’s skills develop highly unequally in the early years, with differences strongly related to family background. For example, at age three, children raised in the highest-income fifth of families are more than three times as likely to have high cognitive ability (placing them in the top fifth of the distribution) as children from families in the lowest-income fifth. Similarly large gaps exist for social and emotional skills.
  • Large differences in the material, emotional and educational aspects of the home environment are key to explaining many of the inequalities in children’s early skills. For example, 42 per cent of parents on the lowest incomes read to their child daily at age three, compared with 76 per cent of parents with the highest incomes.
  • The early years shape later life outcomes to a remarkable degree. As adults, the children of mothers who left school at 16 or over earn about a third more than the children of other mothers on average. Half of that earnings gap can be explained by the child’s early development, and features of the home environment, up to age five.

Sarah Cattan, associate director at the IFS and an author of the new research, said, ‘It is disappointing that socio-economic gaps in early development changed little when comparing children born in the early 2000s with those born in the early 2010s, especially amid concern that the pandemic has held back development and may have widened gaps further. But we know, through many examples of well-crafted and effective early childhood policies which are emerging around the world, that progress is possible. There is real potential for early childhood intervention to boost development, especially among the disadvantaged. It does, however, require careful design, with consideration of the multiple barriers that hold back the most disadvantaged children.’

Professor Alissa Goodman, director of the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and an author of the research, added, ‘The environments that children are raised in, and their development of cognitive, social and emotional skills early in life, are not only key determinants of their experience of childhood – they also profoundly shape their prospects as adults. Early years policies in the UK need to focus more on supporting families during the earliest years (ages 0–2), including through adequate income and housing, ensuring high-quality mental health care, and supporting early parenting, attachment and relationships during this vital period.’

'Sure Start was cut too soon to have a lasting legacy'

The National Education Union said that ‘reducing Sure Start was not the right policy by Government.’

Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney explained, ‘It is welcome the IFS say that Sure Start in particular was a targeted intervention that had positive impacts on the poorest families and children. Sadly, it was cut too soon to have a lasting legacy. 

‘This is a really sobering report. It shows us how unequal the life chances of different groups of young people remain. 

‘It is clear that we have to do much more, on a more ambitious scale, to tackle the income gap between lower income families and higher income families. We can’t keep reporting on the educational advantages that higher incomes confer without seeing a commitment from Government to put a child poverty reduction pledge at the heart of its levelling up plans.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said, 'The IFS report rightly states that a child’s experiences in the early years shapes their later life outcomes ‘to a remarkable degree’. Given this, if the Government is truly committed to its “levelling up” agenda, then surely there is no better place to start than in the early years. 

‘Early educators play a pivotal role in ensuring that all children, regardless of background, get the best possible start in life. Ministers simply must recognise this, and invest in our vital sector accordingly, if we are to have any chance of closing the inequality gap once and for all.’ 

  • The research is available to download here 

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