Creating fairer futures for children and families in early years


by Juliette Collier

Children born into disadvantage are more likely to experience poorer health, lower attainment, a shorter life expectancy and lower levels of happiness than their wealthier peers; and these gaps are growing. The solutions are complex but enriching the home learning environment and providing comprehensive support to children and families in the early years can help bridge those gaps.  

New figures from the Department of Education show that children’s literacy has declined to its lowest levels in almost a decade, with the proportion of six-year olds meeting the expected standard declining from 82 per cent in 2019, to 75 per cent this year. Pupils eligible for free school meals saw the biggest drop in the proportion meeting expected standards, declining 9 percentage points to 62 per cent.  

The Government’s response to the figures demonstrates their focus on schools-based solutions and tutoring courses. “We know the pandemic impacted children’s learning, and we are investing nearly £5 billion – with over two million high-quality tutoring courses already started – to make sure children can catch up fast, and schools should continue to work with parents to make them aware of the additional support on offer.”  

But schools are under immense pressure, and with limited resources and capacity they cannot be the whole solution. Prevention is always better than cure and a tutoring ‘cure’ can only be delivered in small doses, it’s not enough to just make parents ‘aware’ of tutoring courses. Instead, imagine a world where every child had the support they need from birth to develop a love of learning, self-regulation and emotion resilience; a world where children arrive in school ready to learn; a world where parents are equal and valued partners in delivering the best outcomes for their child. This is the world we should be working towards, and the early years workforce is central to achieving this vision. 

A child is not an island; they come with a family context and sometimes complex needs. Poverty creates multiple, often unseen, additional barriers to learning that can only be understood and overcome if we take a holistic approach. Children North East’s Poverty Proofing© programme is a powerful tool that offers pathways to overcome unseen inequalities, helping learning providers reduce stigma and break the link between educational attainment and financial background. By embedding these in their practice, early years settings can support inclusion and reduce inequalities. 

Nesta’s A Fairer Start mission is to ‘eliminate the school readiness gap between those born into deprivation and their peers, with similar gains at age 16 among students receiving free school meals’ by 2030. One of their key principles is ‘harnessing the power of parents to create lasting change and positive impact on young children.’ Their Thrive at Five programme is designed around parent participation and is currently being trialled and evaluated in “pathfinder” areas to inform a nationally replicable approach. 

There are charities and organisations out there taking a holistic approach, but the primary issue is the lack of national infrastructure to support parents. There are a thousand flowers blooming and some brilliant interventions, but with the loss of so many Sure Start centres and huge pressures on local budgets, children and families are being failed. What we need is an ecosystem of comprehensive support for children and families focused on learning outcomes and wellbeing. Early years organisations are central to developing this ecosystem.  

The development of Family Hubs is welcomed to provide a system-wide model of providing high-quality, joined up, whole family support services. In the 75 local authority areas that are eligible to receive a share of the funding it will undoubtedly make a difference, but the scale of support and investment that families need is greater in and beyond the targeted areas that will benefit. 

What we can do, given that in the current financial climate, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be offering significant new investment, is to use our existing resources to work more collaboratively; to share our ideas, share our expertise and focus on what makes the most positive difference to families.  

In this context we are delivering an online conference in November 2022, showcasing the inspirational work of organisations like Children North East and NESTA.

Please do join us at the event Family Learning in the Early Years: First Steps to a Fairer Future. Places are limited, early booking is recommended. Find out more and book your place.