Inequalities in Early Childhood – Institute For Fiscal Studies


Although there is a broad consensus in societies like the UK that every child has the right to a safe childhood and the opportunity to develop to their full potential, this does not correspond to reality for many of the 4 million children under 5 who currently live in the UK.

Through the birth lottery, children are born into different socio-economic circumstances and grow up in remarkably different environments from one another. These deep environmental inequalities are present in a multitude of dimensions, including educational, emotional and material environments. Growing evidence shows that genetic differences also matter and that environmental inequalities correlate and interact with inequalities in genetic endowments. Together, this means that by the time children enter school, their levels of cognitive, social-emotional and physical development are already very unequal.

Inequalities in early childhood – used in this chapter to refer to the period from birth to school entry – are of concern not only because of their implications for the immediate lives and well-being of children, but also because of their importance for further development. Early childhood is a critical period for laying a healthy foundation for later cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development and functioning, which in turn plays a key role in shaping economic life,
social and health trajectories. Without timely and appropriate mitigation, the developmental gaps already present between 5-year-olds from the most and least advantaged backgrounds persist and may widen, contributing to subsequent inequalities in economic and social outcomes, much of which is discussed. part the IFS Deaton exam.

These glaring and longstanding inequalities are not limited to the UK. In many countries where early childhood development indicators are available, we find that developmental gaps emerge from an early age between children from different socio-economic, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. However, this compelling evidence must be weighed against the messages of hope and opportunity emerging from a wide range of disciplines: there is real potential for
childhood to fight effectively against these inequalities. However, what the many examples of well-designed and well-evaluated policies around the world also show is that early childhood intervention is not a silver bullet and, like any policy, requires design and careful consideration of the institutional and social system that it constitutes. aiming to operate in.

Over the past three decades, public awareness of the importance of early childhood has been paralleled by a sharp increase in public spending on education and care services for children under 5 in many countries, including in the UK, where early childhood education and care has become increasingly important. important part of the education spending landscape (Farquharson et al., 2021). Despite these significant investments, we are still making very slow progress in reducing early inequalities, which remain stubbornly persistent despite some fluctuations in the past.
two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another setback, with every indication that it will have exacerbated early inequalities (Cattan, Farquharson et al., 2021).

We are now at an important crossroads. In light of the evidence that early inequality has not materially changed, it would be all too easy to dismiss decades of policy reform and public investment as ineffective. But, of course, we do not observe what would have happened to early inequalities in the absence of these reforms and investments – over a period when inequalities in many dimensions important to child development, including poverty children, have increased. But it would also be a mistake not to look critically at what British policy has achieved over the past three decades and whether it is heading in the right direction, when we know children’s life chances are high. partly conditioned by the social, emotional and economic environments in which they were born.

As we ‘build back better’, there is an opportunity and an urgent need to rethink how to meet the complex needs of disadvantaged children and their families so that we can significantly reduce the inequalities that exist from the moment children are born – and even before. The aim of this chapter is to contribute to this thinking by bringing together systematic and UK-focused evidence on the nature, scale and long-term implications of early childhood inequalities, and by providing a critical assessment how policies aim to
support for very young children and their families has reduced inequalities. The evidence we provide is a motivating call for policy to support the complex needs of parents of infants and young children, while addressing structural inequalities that can have devastating long-term consequences for children.


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