There are huge variations across the country in the number of children reaching a good level of development for reading, writing and their social and emotional development, leading to a ‘life chances postcode lottery’.
The findings come from analysis of official figures by the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), highlighting how children’s life chances vary depending on where they live and the income of their parents.
Performance has continued to improve, with 69% of all children reaching a good level of development. Progress for poorer children is also on the up: 54% of those eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieved a good level of development, up from 51% in 2015.
But there remains significant variation across the country, highlighting how children’s life chances are held back before they start school. JRF says the government’s attempts to make the country work for everyone must begin in early years by stopping poverty in its track.
The analysis found:
- Of 150 local authorities, the worst performing for children eligible for Free School Meals were: Bath and North East Somerset (150), Rutland, Cumbria, Leicestershire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Liverpool, Dudley, Wakefield (141). In these areas, less than half of poorer children reach a good level of development by age 5.
- 4 in ten of the local authorities with the worst overall performance for free school meal children are in areas with the lowest levels of child poverty, showing how poorer children in wealthy areas are being let down.
- The attainment gap – the difference in performance between the poorest children and other children – is largest in wealthier areas. Amongst the local authorities with the largest attainment gaps, two-thirds of them have amongst the lowest levels of child poverty. In some areas the gap in performance is particularly stark. In Windsor and Maidenhead, York and Trafford the poorest children performed in the bottom fifth for their group, whist their wealthier peers performed in the top fifth.
- The largest gaps in attainment between children eligible for free school meals and their peers were: Rutland (32%), Windsor and Maidenhead (32%), Bath and North East Somerset (31%), Trafford (29%), York (27%), Leicestershire (26%), Cumbria (26%), Cheshire East (25%), Wokingham (25%), North Somerset (25%).
- For all children, the Midlands and the North continue to lag behind the rest of the country. Overall London and the South East continue to outperform the rest of the country, with 71% and 73% of children achieving a good level of development in these areas respectively.
- The South West, jointly with the North West, are the regions with the lowest attainment for children eligible for Free School Meals. The South West also has the largest attainment gap, nearly double that of London. London’s success in helping its poorest children shows poverty should not be a barrier to good educational attainment with the right services and support in place.
Poverty takes its toll on family life through a lack of material resources, which contributes to stress and pressure that damage relationships and affect children’s social and emotional progress. Parents’ education and the support they are able to give their children at home is crucial, alongside the availability and access to high quality childcare in early years. At age five, children who have had high-quality childcare for two to three years are nearly eight months ahead in their literacy development than children who have not been in pre-school.
Improving education standards and strengthening families are central to JRF’s strategy to solve poverty. To give children the best start in life, JRF recommends the Prime Minister’s Social Reform Cabinet Committee:
- Look at driving up the provision of high-quality early years childcare by moving towards a graduate-led workforce and ensuring existing staff can train and improve their skills. An Early Excellence Fund, costing £111 million, would help ensure there is experienced early years graduate in nurseries delivering the government’s free childcare offer for two-year-olds; provide financial incentives for nurseries to provide training for non-graduate staff; and support quality networks in every local authority, linking childcare providers to early intervention services.
- Ofsted should collect more data as part of their inspections, to measure staff qualifications, turnover and retention rates in nurseries.
- Support strong families and relationships, with government and local authorities establishing a family hub in every area to bring together services for families and children, and create an effective early intervention network for those that need it.
Helen Barnard, head of analysis at JRF, said:
“If we are to make Britain work for everyone, we need to stop poverty in its tracks and give every child the best start in life. Poverty damages children’s progress and the attainment gap opens up as early as age five, before they start school.
“This research shows how poverty reaches every corner of the country. Children’s life chances are subject to a postcode lottery, where their prospects are harmed by where they are born and the income of their parents. These figures show stark divides across the country – not just in areas which traditionally struggle, but also wealthy ones, where poorer children fare particularly badly.
“Family stability and parental support are the bedrock of children’s lives, so what happens in the home matters, but high-quality childcare can make all the difference in helping poorer kids catch up and be ready to start school.”
JRF is calling on the Government to build on its childcare reforms by focusing on the quality of provision. Helen Barnard added:
“The government has committed £2 billion of new funding to childcare and it is encouraging the importance of early years is being recognised. The missing piece of the jigsaw is driving up quality and supporting areas where poorer children are falling behind. The government should go beyond its existing reforms by driving up the quality of childcare on offer around the country, which could be achieved for a fraction of the cost being used to expand provision. Otherwise we risk letting another generation of children fall behind.”