Poverty review calls for focus on early years

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Improving the life chances of children under five is the key to ensuring that the children of poor parents do not grow up to be poor adults, the Government's poverty adviser Frank Field has said.

In the independent review on poverty and life chances, Mr Field said that the Government should adopt the term ‘the Foundation Years’ to encompass pregnancy to age five, to help give these ‘crucial years’ equal status and importance in the public mind to primary and secondary schools, and ensure that child development and services during the early years are understood.

Mr Field said, ‘We have found overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are heavily predicted on their development in the first five years of life. It is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.’

Schools should teach parenting and life skills, he said, with Sure Start continuing this.

‘Parents are the key driver in determining their children’s life chances. It’s not so much who parents are – what their jobs are – but what parents do – how they nurture their children, which the evidence shows, determines a child’s life’s race.’

He said there should be a new set of Life Chances Indicators to measure children’s cognitive, physical and emotional development at the ages of three and five.

These indicators should be published each year by the Government so that taxpayers can see what progress is being made and so that local authorities and early years providers are accountable.

Mr Field is also calling for reform of children’s centres with contracts for 'Sure Start Mark II' put out to tender, so that GPs, voluntary organisations, housing associations, schools and setting staff themselves are able to bid to run centres.

Funding should be gradually moved to the early years and weighted toward the most disadvantaged children and the Fairness Premium should start in pregnancy.

The report also said that governments should in future not automatically increase benefits for children without considering whether the life chances of poorer children will be increased by transferring any benefit increases into building the Foundation Years.

The report recommends that the Government should develop a long-term strategy to increase the life chances of poorer children by narrowing the gaps in outcomes between poorer and richer children in the Foundation Years as the most cost-effective way to address inequalities in adult life.

Mr Field said he hoped that the Government’s social mobility strategy, to be published in the New Year, will reflect this recommendation.

Responding to the review, Prime Minister David Cameron, who commissioned the review, and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said it was 'a hugely welcome contribution' to the debate about poverty.

They said that they welcomed the focus on early years as the critical years for promoting a more mobile and fairer society.

They also greed that there needed to be a framework based on life chances, with inter-generational poverty given as much weight as income measures, and a need 'to look at poverty in the round, and over time'.

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