Many life outcomes – from education and work, to health and crime – have their roots in development that takes place in the first few years of life. The foundations for healthy cognitive, social, emotional, and physical functioning are established early, so inequalities which develop in the early years have the potential to last a lifetime.
There are many aspects of early human development, from language skills and cognition to social and emotional development, and physical health and growth. Substantial gaps in these dimensions are already apparent in early childhood between children of different gender, children of different race and ethnicity, and between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Children’s early life experiences are crucial to shape their development, suggesting there is potential for policy to level the playing field early. Although the quality of children’s early environments plays an indisputable role in shaping developmental trajectories in early childhood and beyond, the relative importance of genes versus environment (and of their interactions) is still debated. Mapping what this means for policy is crucial to identify what early interventions should focus on to have meaningful and sustained impacts.
The chapter brings together existing knowledge and novel empirical evidence to bear on all these issues. We map inequalities in early development and early life experiences across a number of socio-demographic dimensions and their evolutions over the past two decades. We investigate how these have changed over the past two decades, in response to broader demographic and economic changes such as the rise in single parenthood and of income inequality. Finally, we discuss which aspects of children’s environments should be the focus of early intervention, and how this aligns with the last two decades of early years policy in the UK.