According to the annual State of the Nation report by the Government’s social mobility watchdog, there are 94 local authority areas in England (29 per cent of the country) where less than half of disadvantaged five-year-olds reach a good level of development.
The South East is the best region for a child’s early years, which the report attributes to the prevalence of more affluent areas as well as high development outcomes and good-quality childcare.
This is in contrast with ‘coldspots’ for early years, where disadvantaged five-year-olds are 14 percentage points less likely to be school-ready than in ‘hotspots’.
According to the findings, the best place for the prospects for disadvantaged children and young people to grow up is Westminster, and the worst is West Somerset.
Only half of local authorities have a clear strategy for improving disadvantaged children’s outcomes.
The report reveals that London is pulling away from the rest of the country, while rural, coastal and former industrial areas are being left behind economically and socially.
Its Social Mobility index ranks all 324 local authorities in England in terms of their social mobility prospects for someone from a disadvantaged background. It uses 16 different indicators to assess an individual's education, employability and housing prospects from the early years to adult working life, to map the nation’s social mobility 'hotspots' and 'coldspots'.
However, it points out that there is no direct correlation between the affluence of an area and its ability to sustain high levels of social mobility. While richer areas tend to outperform deprived areas, some of the most deprived areas in England buck the trend, including most London boroughs – such as Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham. Conversely, some affluent areas – such as West Berkshire, Cotswold and Crawley - are among the worst for offering good education, employment opportunities and affordable housing to their most disadvantaged residents.
Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said, 'The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one. There is a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today.
'London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain. It is moving ahead, as are many of our country’s great cities. But too many rural and coastal areas and the towns of Britain’s old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially.'
Early years findings include:
- London has high development outcomes for disadvantaged children (almost 10 percentage points above the average), in spite of issues with childcare quality.
- Areas with the best support for disadvantaged children have high-quality pre-school settings and effective promotion and take-up of early education.
- Support for parents is limited in most areas and not well-evidenced.
- In 11 local authority areas, nearly all early education is graded good or outstanding, while in some others, around one in ten settings is graded requires improvement.
- Disadvantaged children in the best areas are twice as likely to reach a good level of development at age five, compared with similar children in the worst areas.
- Three London boroughs – Hackney, Haringey and Newham – have almost eliminated the development gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.
The best and worst performers against early years social mobility indicators
Source: State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain
Funded twos and 30 hours
The report also reveals that take-up of funded places for disadvantaged two-year-olds varies widely from 39 per cent to 96 per cent. Around 80,000 eligible twos (29 per cent) are missing out on places, it says.
The report recommends driving uptake of the early education offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds and ensuring that they do not lose places to children eligible for the 30-hour offer.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘The Commission is completely right to highlight the importance of the early years in improving social mobility. ‘However, while this report focuses on the role local authorities should play in reducing inequality, it’s clear that this needs to be supported by the actions and policies of central government.
‘We have long argued that early years policy should focus on supporting those families most in need – which is why it’s so concerning that the Government's current approach to childcare and the early years actually risks worsening social inequality in this country.
‘Not only do we now have a completely regressive tax-free childcare scheme – where the richer a parent is, the more support they get from Government – we also have a 30-hour “free childcare” scheme which is so severely underfunded that it's forcing childcare providers to prioritise offering places to families that can afford to pay for “optional extras”, effectively pushing those that can’t to the back of the queue.
‘Worse still, the eligibility criteria for the 30-hour policy excludes the poorest families altogether, while offering financial support to households earning as much as £199,000 a year. Add to this the fact that the early years pupil premium is still less than a quarter of what primary schools receive, and it’s clear that the Government has its priorities all wrong when it comes to the early years.
‘If the Government want to close the attainment gap and improve the life chances of those children that need the most support, it needs to not only drastically increase current levels of investment into the early years sector, but also ensure that this money is being targeted at where it is most needed.’
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, of the National Education Union said the report revealed ‘the Government’s abject failure in tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality and in offering hope to communities across the country. The gap between the better off and the least well off is growing and Britain is an increasingly unequal and unfair society.
‘The widening gap is the product of a failed approach to economic development and the incredibly short-sighted programme of austerity which has cut vital public services, including education budgets across the country.
He added, ‘That we have four million children living in poverty is an absolute disgrace in the world’s fourth richest economy. If the Government was serious about improving children’s life chances it would have invested in early years rather than cutting Sure Start and funding for childcare; it would have increased school funding and local authority budgets for school support services not slashed them and it would have addressed the growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis.’
Education Secretary Justine Greening said, ‘The findings of the Social Mobility Commission underline the importance of focusing our efforts in more disadvantaged areas where we can make the biggest difference. By working to boost attainment and opportunity – both inside and outside the classroom – we want to help all young people in those areas fulfil their potential.
‘Our Opportunity Areas programme is developing evidence-based approaches to tackle entrenched underperformance alongside wider investment to improve early numeracy, literacy, and teacher recruitment in areas that need it most, as well as working with businesses locally to raise sights and broaden horizons for young people.
‘We are making progress - there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.’
The Department for Education said it was doing more to tackle low literacy and language skills in the early years through a series of programmes in Reception, including a £140 million Strategic School Improvement Fund. The latest Early Years Foundation Stage Profile data shows that the percentage of children achieving a good level of development continues to rise – 70.7 per cent compared to 69.3 per cent last year.
The DfE said that over 70 per cent of eligible children are taking up 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds.