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23 June 2022

Inequalities in early child development remained stubbornly high through the 2010s

Inequalities in the early cognitive, social and emotional development of children in the UK, which are so important in shaping later life outcomes, have changed little between those born in the early 2000s and those born in the early 2010s.

New research on UK inequalities in early childhood carried out for the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, paints a challenging picture:

  • Inequalities in early cognitive, social and emotional development have changed little between children born in the early 2000s and those born in the early 2010s. This applies to gaps between the children of high- and low-educated mothers, and between children living in more and less deprived areas.
  • Trends in the home environments that children grow up in are mixed. On average, 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 a rising prevalence of maternal mental health problems. Differences in these environmental factors between richer and poorer families remain stubbornly high.
  • The lack of change in gaps in early development comes 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. The authors argue that persistence of the inequalities likely reflects the complex and multiple factors affecting child development and the fact that much of the increased public spending has been on childcare places and childcare subsidies for the over-2s, while the primary determinants of early development are in the family home and operate from the very earliest stages of life.

Other key findings include:

  • Children’s skills develop highly unequally in the early years, with differences strongly related to family background. For example, at age 3, 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, mothers in the lowest-income fifth of families are almost eleven times more likely to experience psychological distress, when their child is 3, than mothers in the top-income fifth; and 42% of parents on the lowest incomes read to their child daily at age 3, compared with 76% 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 5.

Sarah Cattan, Associate Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies 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, said:

‘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.’

Eleanor Ireland, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

‘Widening inequalities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis have made it even more crucial that families with young children are given adequate support. A holistic approach to early childhood is needed that will provide families with parenting support, access to mental health services, boosted family incomes and improvements to the physical environments in which children are raised. This support could help to close the disadvantage gap and improve outcomes for children throughout their lives.’