Tackling disadvantage in the early years Contents


Effective teaching and effective parenting are absolutely vital in terms of how young children are going to develop through their lives. When it is at its best, it really does have a strong impact on helping children from more disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve more.1

Professor Dominic Wyse, UCL Institute of Education and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy

1.When the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron, set out the key areas that would be covered in the Government’s life chances strategy in January 2016, he spoke of the crucial early years and their role in determining children’s future life chances.2 Families and the early years was a key pillar of his approach, as well as education.

2.Our predecessor Committee, along with the previous Work and Pensions Committee, held a joint one-off evidence session in December 2015 on the Government’s life chances strategy and the role that early or foundation years intervention plays in shaping children’s lives.3 In December 2016, Damian Hinds MP, then Minister of State in the Department for Work and Pensions, made it unclear in response to a written parliamentary question whether or not the Government’s life chances strategy would be pursued, referring only to other work that the Government was engaged in:

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether he plans to publish the delayed Life Chances Strategy or a replacement in 2016.

The Prime Minister is clear that tackling poverty and disadvantage, and delivering real social reform, is a priority for this Government. We intend to bring forward a social justice green paper in the new year.4

3.Since then, the strategic direction of Government policy in this area has been lacking. We were concerned about the apparent absence of strategy in this important area. Reports suggested that one of the Government’s flagship policies was entrenching disadvantage were also alarming.5 The Education Policy Institute wrote that

Offering additional childcare, which presumably holds some educational value, to all but the neediest, at significant cost to the tax-payer, isn’t the worst of this policy. The hourly costs paid by government may well be too low to support an expansion of places, resulting in pushing disadvantaged children to the back of the queue, and/or damaging the quality of the 15 hours they are entitled to.6

The publication of the Government’s social mobility action plan in December 2017 brought renewed focus to early years policy but did not fully address the role played by the early years.

4.Our report covers what we consider to be the two key areas that influence life chances: quality early years education and supporting a strong home learning environment. However, we are also concerned about the effect that income poverty during the early years has on children’s life chances. Witnesses to our inquiry identified income poverty as one of the biggest influences on life chances. Dr Kitty Stewart, Associate Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explained:

I think income poverty is crucial. Somehow in all the discussions that we have, thinking about how we can improve it, we focus on lots of important, smaller issues. It is very difficult for those to have an effect when families are really struggling. We have robust causal evidence that if you improve income for families who are living in poverty, it improves children’s outcomes.7

5.We were told that financial disadvantage particularly affects preschool children. Steven McIntosh, Director of UK Poverty Policy at Save the Children, explained that

When you look at overall figures of financial disadvantage, it is preschool children who are in households most likely to experience financial disadvantage. The fastest risers, and the highest levels of poverty and financial disadvantage, are among those households with a child under five, where it is a rate of around 35%, as opposed to a lower rate for children of school age. Given all the evidence that we have heard about the critical importance of the early years, this adds to the importance of taking action at that time.8

6.However there are other equally significant drivers of disadvantage. For example, single parents can face substantial additional burdens. The Department for Work and Pensions published information stating that

47 per cent of children in lone parent families are living below the official poverty line, compared to 24 per cent of children in families with two parents.9

7.Social justice has been the central thread running through our inquiry and is integral to our exploration of issues relating to life chances. We launched our inquiry into the impact of the early years of a child’s life on determining their life chances on 4 May 2018. We invited written evidence on:

8.We received over 60 written submissions during our inquiry and held four sessions of oral evidence. Our witnesses included academics, representatives from charities, and a professional association. In our final session, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi MP, gave evidence alongside Michelle Dyson, Director of Early Years and Childcare at the Department for Education.

9.We visited Manchester in September, as part of both this inquiry and our work on education in the north. We held a roundtable with early years practitioners, charities and stakeholders to discuss the work taking place in Greater Manchester. We visited Martenscroft Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Hulme and attended the launch of a SHINE project at Corrie Primary School in Denton. SHINE is an education charity aiming to raise attainment of children from low income homes across the Northern Powerhouse area. We are grateful to our hosts, all the stakeholders and practitioners we met, and the Northern Powerhouse Project for facilitating our visit.

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2Prime Minister’s speech on life chances”, HMG, 11 January 2016

3 Work and Pensions and Education Select Committees, ‘Foundation years and life chances strategy: joint inquiry launched’, 17 December 2015

5 Nursery World, ‘30 hours saves poorest parents least’, 17 September 2017; Education Policy Institute, ‘How not to close the disadvantage gap—5 red herrings to avoid’, 12 September 2016

6 Education Policy Institute, How not to close the disadvantage gap—5 red herrings to avoid, 12 September 2016

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Published: 7 February 2019