A fairer start: why a more equal future begins with the first years of life

Long before a newborn child takes their first breath, their wider circumstances begin to shape their future.

There is a gap between children born into rich and poor families that begins right at the very start of life and only increases over time. And nowhere is this disparity more apparent than in education.

In England, children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school four and a half months behind their more affluent peers in terms of academic development. By age 16, these children have fallen to a year and a half behind. And it’s a similar story in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This means that many children ultimately leave school without reaching the minimum levels of learning that our education system is supposed to provide. And as a result, disadvantaged children are propelled further down a path towards reduced health, wealth and happiness throughout their lives.

This is a problem both for individual children and for society as a whole, because the pattern entrenches existing wealth disparities, compounds generational disadvantage and limits social mobility.

But the problem is not insurmountable. We know that early years interventions can narrow the education gap between rich and poor right from the start. That’s why it’s so vital to act in the first years of a child’s life, to stop the cycle and give more kids a better chance in school and beyond.

So where do we begin?

When it comes to childhood inequality, the problem is clearly manifested through the ‘outcome gap’, and it’s this gap that we desperately need to close.

The outcome gap is the difference between the educational outcomes of children from rich and poor families. At Nesta, our goal is to close the outcome gap by 2030, so that all children are equally well-equipped from the start.

In England, the government tracks ‘school readiness’: a measure of whether children are cognitively, socially and emotionally developed enough to succeed in school. It covers skills like reading and maths, as well as communication, physical development, and social and emotional capabilities.

In 2019, 28% of children in England were not school ready – that’s a lot of kids beginning school already at a disadvantage. And what’s more, 1 in 5 of those children were eligible for free school meals.

The pattern is similar in Scotland, where the outcome gap across children living in more or less deprived areas is measured using development in capabilities like speech, motor skills and problem solving, as well as in literacy and numeracy. In 2019-20, 13% of children were falling behind in one or more of these areas by age 4-5.

And in Wales, we also see similar problems. Here, the outcome gap can be seen in the disparity between attainment in key skills, like maths, personal and social development, and language, literacy and communication. Children on free school meals are less likely to reach the required standards in all areas.

We know that the outcome gap is determined long before children begin school, so to fix this problem, we need to look at the factors outside of school that shape early development.

One of these factors is the ‘home learning environment’, meaning the conditions a child experiences at home and the support they have from caregivers. The home learning environment can be shaped by physical characteristics – like the quality and type of housing, plus resources such as books and toys – as well as parenting, like exposure to reading stories, visits to the library and singing songs.

Outside of the home, early years education and access to childcare are also really important to children's development. We know that children have better outcomes when they have access to quality early years programs – like nursery groups, childminders and pre-school. But we also know that disadvantaged families are less likely to use these programs, even when they’re eligible for free access.

To close the outcome gap, we need action on both these fronts: the home learning environment and early years programs. But what does this look like?

At Nesta, we’re exploring a number of different routes. We’re looking at ways of reaching parents directly – through apps and targeted communications – to support families to enhance the home learning environment. We’re also exploring partnerships with local authorities to help improve uptake of existing parenting support and childcare programs.

And we’re carrying out research into how we can help more parents access evidence-based interventions. If we can pinpoint the most impactful work taking place across the UK, we can use that information to improve the offering everywhere else.

There’s a long way to go in combating the entrenched inequalities faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we can make a difference.

By taking action to address the problem in the early years, we can help ensure that the circumstances of a child’s birth do not dictate the trajectory of their life. And this is a problem worth solving – because ultimately, a fairer society begins with a fairer start for each and every child.


Raj Chande

Raj Chande

Raj Chande

Director, a fairer start mission

Raj led Nesta’s mission to create a fairer start, focusing on narrowing the outcome gap between children growing up in disadvantaged households and the national average.

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