How has early childhood changed?
1. Changing family forms and parenting experiences.
Family living arrangements in the UK are increasingly varied. While family forms do not determine outcomes for young children, this diversity in family life is an important context for parenting.
We don’t know whether expectations of parents are growing, but we do have a greater appreciation of the significant mental and emotional impacts of being a parent of a young children, including feeling stressed and judged by others.
2. Combining paid work and childcare has become the norm for mothers with young children.
There has been a marked rise in the proportion of mothers with young children who are in paid work whereas the proportion of fathers in paid work remains largely unchanged. Striking a balance between work and childcare and the associated pressures – time, financial, emotional – is increasingly important for many families with young children.
3. Formal education and childcare: a near-universal experience for young children.
Virtually all young children now experience some form of state-financed formal early childhood education and care before beginning primary school. The accessibility, affordability and quality of formal education and childcare has become a key issue for families with young children and for society.
4. Rising poverty, inequalities and vulnerability.
There have been increases in relative child poverty rates since 2013/14, particularly in families where the youngest child is under five, with a concurrent rise in in-work poverty. And while young children’s health has improved overall over the last 20 years, trends are marked by stark inequalities, with strong associations between poor health, geographical area, ethnicity and level of deprivation. In combination, rising poverty and deprivation makes it more difficult for early years and childcare, health and other services to mitigate its effects and reduce inequalities between children.
Policy goals for early childhood
Two-fifths of children are not reaching the expected levels of development at age five, more than a third of families with a young child are living in relative poverty and all families are grappling with the consequences of the pandemic and sharply rising prices. There is a compelling case for an ambitious early childhood strategy, underpinned by clear objectives, sustained investment, joined up services and the principle of early intervention. We set out four policy goals for such a strategy.
Goal 1: Services that understand and respond to the needs of all families with young children in the round.
We know that family-focused, joined-up services that take account of the complexity and dynamism of family lives are key; no single service provider can deliver good outcomes alone. These services need to provide a continuum of support for parents, from light-touch universal information and guidance to more intensive, sustained support for those in need of additional help. In the medium-term, the Best Start for Life’s vision needs to be extended up to the age of five and to connect across all services for families, including efforts to tackle poverty. While a comprehensive assessment of what needs to change in order to bring about this vision is beyond the scope of this report, our series has identified a number of priorities worth highlighting:
- Making early childhood education and care a core part of integrated systems of family support.
- Joining up data to develop a shared view of the child and their family.
- Ensuring development reviews form the basis of timely support for young children and their families.
- Better meeting the needs of families that have been underserved historically.
Goal 2: All parents to have a choice about how they care for their young children.
Empowering choices requires parental leave entitlements and creating family-friendly workplaces, requiring action from both government and employers. It also requires a step change in enabling both mothers and fathers to balance work and care. Priorities for reform include:
- Extending the scale and reach of work-care policies.
- Addressing the cliff-edge of parental leave and employment.
- Encouraging employers to pro-actively support and enhance work-care balance for parents of young children.
Goal 3: An early childhood education and care system to support all young children’s learning – in the broadest sense – with a focus on tackling disadvantage.
The pandemic has highlighted just how integral to the lives of families with young children early childhood education and care services have become. Given the rapid growth of this sector, its complexity and tensions between its objectives, we conclude that a whole system review is needed. Ensuring sustainable early years provision involves reviewing overall funding and an ambitious medium-term goal for a graduate-led early years workforce. This includes exploring how to bind increases in funding to improved quality. Priorities for reform include:
- Improving support for disadvantaged children and those with additional needs.
- Reducing the financial burden of childcare on families.
- Strengthening the early years workforce.
Goal 4: A societal commitment to tackling the causes and effects of early childhood poverty.
There is a pressing need for greater recognition of the harm poverty can cause young children, building consensus on the measures and investment required to tackle early childhood poverty. Tackling poverty in early childhood involves addressing its direct and indirect causes and impacts: quality jobs for parents that enable work-care balance and progression, improving social security
benefits to enable work and meet immediate and acute needs, support for parenting and mental health, and a tailored approach that understands and responds to the complex and inter-connected pathways into and out of poverty. Priorities include:
- Introducing a comprehensive measure of relative income poverty, agreed by government.
- Ensuring social security boosts employment and addresses immediate needs.
- Tackling poverty as part of joined-up services in early childhood.