Child Development and Inequality September 2016

Thank you for contacting me recently regarding child development and inequality.

High quality early years provision is vital to give children a decent start in life. I believe that all children, whatever their background, should be ready for school by the age of 5. I appreciate, however, that Action for Children has highlighted that one in three children in England are currently not ready for school by the age of 5 and has also raised concerns regarding inequality and child poverty - and the effect this can have on a child's life. I share these concerns and agree that good development is vitally important for all children.

The previous Labour Government introduced free early education and childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, created Sure Start centres, expanded school nurseries and more than doubled childcare places, and helped with the cost of childcare through tax credits and vouchers. The last Labour Government also introduced the Children Act 2004 - which established a Children's Commissioner - and in 2010 the Child Poverty Act which enshrined a child poverty target in legislation. The previous Labour Government created 3,600 Sure Start children's centres which were aimed at improving the life chances of children in deprived areas, providing support and advice for families. At the last general election I stood on a manifesto which pledged to protect the entire education budget, including the early years.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which was developed under the previous Labour Government, is a statutory framework for children up to the age of 5 which sets out the areas of learning around which educational activities should be based; and sets the statutory standards all early years providers must meet. The current framework sets out seven areas of learning which should be provided as part of early years education: literacy, mathematics, understanding the world, and expressive arts and design, as well as the three 'prime' areas of communication and language, physical development, and personal, social and emotional development. As you know, the current Government has confirmed that the EYFS profile - which all early years providers have been required to complete for each child in the final term of the year in which they turn 5 - will no longer be compulsory from September 2016.

I am concerned that under the current Government, childcare and early years services have been left chronically underfunded and that early intervention services are failing to reach those most in need. Since 2010, Sure Start has withered on the vine with hundreds of centres hollowed out, providing fewer services, for shorter hours, while many others have regretfully closed. I am also concerned that cuts to Whitehall budgets have meant overall spending on early intervention programmes has fallen by 55%, or £1.8 billion, since 2010.

In addition, the Government has decided to replace child poverty targets with a new duty to report on levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction. While measuring these areas is important - as they are commonly experienced by those living in poverty and by children from disadvantaged backgrounds - I am concerned about withdrawing the duty to also report and monitor material disadvantage. I fear this could lead to child poverty going unmonitored, unchecked and unrestrained.

As you may be aware, it was announced during the Queens Speech in May 2016 that the Government would introduce new indicators for measuring life chances and I understand that Action for Children has called for the number of children reaching good levels of development by age five to be included as a measure. The Government has said it will publish its Life Chances Strategy later this year and I hope it will carefully consider the proposals put forward by Action for Children and respond to the concerns it has raised.

I strongly believe in the early intervention philosophy. I wrote two independent reports for the Government in 2011 showing the potential benefits and savings that early intervention could make. That lead to the creation of the Early Intervention Foundation which I was the founding Chair.

There is more information about this on my website which also includes links to my two reports:

I agree that targeted early intervention can be a beneficial and cost effective way of helping children and young people and of reducing long-term costs for taxpayers. Effective early interventions can also reduce demand for services and help avoid more complex problems in later life. 

Thank you once again for contacting me and for sharing your views on this important issue. I can assure you I will continue to press the Government to invest now in the essential formative years of a child's life, which I believe will be an investment in our country's future.