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Boosting children’s future life chances

I was recently struck by a report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) following a review, chaired by Sir Angus Deaton, on inequality. The IFS published five papers on families and early childhood development, one of which concerned early childhood inequalities.

The importance of the early years cannot be overstated. The greatest opportunities to make a real and tangible difference to children’s outcomes occur when they are very young and growing up. Experiencing material hardship such as food insecurity and poor-quality housing can have a lifelong impact on health, development, educational attainment and social and economic outcomes. The end child poverty campaign has conducted research showing that 27% of children in the UK are living in poverty which tells us the scale of the problem we must overcome.

The Deaton Review found that despite unprecedented public investment over the past two decades in the early years, there has been a relative shift away from spending on the most disadvantaged families towards families in work. Indeed, the report notes that much policy has focused on children aged two and over despite evidence of the first 1,001 days being a crucial developmental period.

Improving the life chances of children must be at the heart of all policy decisions. The need to think and act differently in order to mitigate against the risks of longer term challenges and rising inequalities is more pressing than ever, particularly as we are seeing more families fall into poverty due to the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. We must target available funding towards the most disadvantaged in order to affect generational change, investing in the early years workforce is a must too. Indeed, recent Treasury figures found a £2.37bn underspend on tax-free childcare over the past four years.

The impacts of early life inequalities are lasting but there is much this government can do improve children’s life chances. Education is a way out of poverty, yet poverty is one of the main barriers to learning, and we expect more children will fall into poverty as families struggle with food, fuel and energy prices. When exploring educational inequalities, the IFS found that there has been virtually no change in the disadvantage gap at GCSE level over the past 20 years, despite decades of investment. If the government is serious about levelling up this country, then we must invest in the right areas, and in the right way, to make a real tangible impact to ensure that no child is left behind.

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This column first appeared in the MJ - Boosting children’s future life chances (themj.co.uk)



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