The early years are a vital time in the life of any child. They play a significant role in shaping the person they will become and the opportunities in life they will have. It is also a crucial, and often difficult, time for parents, trying to balance the wellbeing and development of their child with the need to provide financial stability. Early years childcare and education touches on many aspects of social policy, from education to the labour market to the benefits system. It is a tricky area to get right, and as our new research shows, England has a lot to be proud of in this area, having made good progress over the last 20 years on parental leave policies and early education provision.
However, there remains a substantial gap in the school readiness of less well-off children and their more advantaged classmates by the time they start school – one that has finally started to narrow but which remains at over 17 percentage points. This gap continues to widen throughout the school years, so it is essential that we close it early so children can begin their formal education on a level playing field. Too many toddlers in disadvantaged households lack the support they need to kick-start their development. Good nursery provision, with well-trained and skilled staff, can help to do this. This is crucial for the prospects of social mobility, and this principle should be at the heart of government policy in the early years.
This report examines the current state of early years policy in light of the evidence about what works. We assess the strengths and limitations of where we are today, and identify priority areas and key next steps for policy attention. The report covers three types of early years policy: parental leave and parenting; early education and childcare; and financial support to households with young children. The focus throughout is on narrowing gaps at school starting age between children from different backgrounds – essential to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and making progress on social mobility.