The government must invest in the early years if it wants to ‘level up’

'Without the required investment in services for under-5s and their families, inequalities will continue to open up from the start'


Ben Cooper (@BenCooper1995) is a senior researcher at the Fabian Society

Earlier this week, Northern newspapers made a powerful case to invest in our youngest children, in order to ‘level up’. Together, they called on the government to deliver more equal life chances for children living in the North, which are far worse than in other parts of the country. 

For over a decade, our youngest children have paid the price for Conservative policies, which have hollowed out early years provision across England. More than 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres have closed, early education has been underfunded, and family incomes have been cut, especially with the introduction of the two child limit.

Now, more than two million families with children under five live in poverty – set to get worse as prices rise. And every year, 185,000 children start school not ready to learn. Children from low-income families, from ethnic minority backgrounds, and with special educational needs and disabilities, are more likely to lag behind their peers.

There are also significant regional inequalities: a child qualifying for free school meals in London is 30 per cent more likely to be at the expected educational standard at the end of reception than a child in the Leeds city region, in Greater Manchester or on Merseyside.

To its credit, the recent Levelling Up White Paper does recognise the importance of narrowing these early years inequalities, so that people can earn more, progress in their careers and have healthier, longer lives.

But, as with so much in the White Paper, these targets are not backed up by the investment to deliver change. Central government cuts mean that, between 2010 and 2020, local authority spending on early intervention services – including children’s centres and family support – has halved in real terms. The 2021 Budget and Spending Review fell a long way short of reversing this, providing just £500m over three years for early years.

The government must do whatever it takes to make our country ‘the best place to be born into’.

They must show young people are the priority by making public services deliver. The government’s Healthy Child programme just shows how little they focus on young children. This programme rightly aims to provide an important, universal preventative service. But health visitors who deliver it are underfunded and overstretched. Just 9 per cent of health visitors deal with a ‘safe-sized’ caseload of fewer than 250 children, and a quarter support over 750 children at the same time. This cannot continue if we are serious about closing health inequalities.

The government must also reform how we fund childcare and early education. The current system simply doesn’t work. We could spend the same amount of public money better to deliver more affordable childcare for all families. This could tackle educational inequalities, while being simple to access for parents, and fair for those who work in the sector. And we need to rebuild the community infrastructure to provide universal help, targeted interventions and integrated support for families between conception and the age of five – whether we call it Sure Start or not.

The public understands the importance of investing in the early years for levelling up. Polling for our cross-party Early Years Commission found 56 per cent of people agreed that ‘investing in early years services would have a positive impact on their local area’. Further, we found that 43 per cent of English adults would support more funding for services that help young children and families, even if it was paid for by increasing taxes or by cutting other services. Just 19 per cent would oppose it.

Without the required investment in services for under-5s and their families, inequalities will continue to open up from the start, poverty will continue to scar deeply, and our country’s path to a more prosperous future will be blocked. The government has at least taken the first step, and recognised the importance of early years to levelling up. Now it is time for them to deliver the investment needed, to give our youngest children the best start in life, no matter where they live.

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