Fighting inequality in the UK has to start young

“Universality is key to sustainability and to acceptability of programmes of this kind.  Universal support also reflects our strong belief that parenting skills are not innate and all parents need support.”  

Anna-Louise van der Merwe
24 February 2017


Maple Lane nursery school. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

At the beginning of February, the Resolution Foundation forecast that the UK risks facing levels of inequality not seen since the 1980s. The suggestion of a return to the 80s is enough to bring most of us out in a cold sweat – the music, the hair, Dynasty. But the sharp warning about the surge in inequality could in fact provide the momentum to effectively guide the Prime Minister’s new social justice plan. Beyond the need to establish a new economic model in a tumultuous period, the social justice plan should also incorporate longer term investments to reduce the intergenerational cycle of poverty. 

The Foundation Years Trust is putting into action some of the key recommendations of the Rt Hon Frank Field MP’s 2010 report: Preventing poor children becoming poor adults. This report, along with a growing body of evidence, points to the critical period between 0 – 5 years for effective interventions with parents and children to improve the home learning environment and parenting style, which can equalise the attainment gap between children from low income families and their wealthier peers. By closing this gap by the time a child starts formal schooling, we establish a level playing field for success in educational achievement and later, employment.  

The Foundation Years Trust is testing a model of intervention which can be scaled up and rolled out as a standard part of nursery education. The programme incorporates weekly sessions for parents and children together. The sessions demonstrate activities which improve the home learning environment and the child’s capacity and curiosity for learning. They build on skills parents already have and provide space for parents to have fun with their child and to lead their learning. These groups are held in nursery settings within the free 15 hours and make up a standard part of the weekly nursery timetable. The model is being tested with families eligible for two-year funded nursery places and with families accessing free hours for 3 – 4 year olds. Importantly the groups can be led by early years teachers and practitioners within normal hours, so without additional cost to the nursery and with clear benefits by the time the child moves up to reception class.

The research shows that the families eligible for two-year funded childcare have greater need for parenting support. However as brought out in Frank Field’s report, universality is key to sustainability and to acceptability of programmes of this kind. Universal support also reflects our strong belief that parenting skills are not innate and all parents need support. Universal support also reflects our strong belief that parenting skills are not innate and all parents need support

With the evidence we are collecting, we aim to influence early years policy makers to adopt this model as a standard part of early years education. Concrete actions that address inequality before a child starts school will complement more immediate actions the government must take to remedy economic and social inequality, by ensuring the next generation are prepared to lead continued economic growth.

As a country we need to be able to measure the impact of the government’s intervention to reduce poverty and the impact of poverty. The government has already committed to introducing indicators against which we can measure our children’s life chances. These must again be put to the forefront, under the new social justice plan. While measuring poverty against income gives us part of the picture, our understanding of poverty and social injustice needs to be more sophisticated. Life Chance indicators will allow us to see where children are on the equality spectrum when they are born, where they are when they start school and where they are when they leave school to become productive members of society. They will help us hold government to account and to target resources where it is needed.

Economists and their negative forecasts have taken their share of criticism in recent months, but wherever you sit on the gloom scale, it is undeniable that we are moving into a different phase economically and socially. Theresa May’s government is gearing up to navigate this new terrain and there is an opportunity now to get behind effective, inclusive and low cost plans which will build families’ confidence in the future.

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