Our mission is to narrow the outcome gap between children growing up in disadvantage and the national average.

The challenge

The circumstances of our childhood set us on a trajectory that affects the rest of our lives, with children born into disadvantage being far more likely to experience poorer health, lower earnings, a shorter life expectancy and lower levels of happiness than their peers. Taken together, the early years (ages 0–5) and secondary school period (ages 11–16) account for the development of 80 per cent of this divergence in life outcomes.

We know that investing in early childhood can vastly improve outcomes for our poorest children. Yet progress to narrow the gap in early years has stalled, with trends once again worsening, and made even more stark by COVID-19. Fragmented service delivery, the distributed nature of national early childhood policy, an overstretched early years workforce and lack of support for parents all combine to leave many children without the resources they need in their early years.

Our goal

By 2030, our goal is that the UK will have eliminated the school readiness gap between those born into deprivation and their peers, with similar gains at age 16 among students receiving free school meals.

Where we're focusing our efforts

From the moment of conception, the life trajectories of children in richer and poorer families begin to diverge. Some of this has its roots in physiological development. Our brains and bodies are built and refined in the womb and first years of life, meaning maternal health, diet and early nutrition play a considerable role in our development.

The context of the home environment also exerts a great deal of influence. Financial difficulties, strained relationships and poor or unstable housing can all prevent parents and carers from giving their child the best possible start, and forming the strong early attachments that are so critical in infant development. Indeed, socio-economic and environmental factors can explain much of the gap between children from richer and poorer families during the early years.

Children and families also need access to high-quality childcare to thrive. The UK has a chronic shortage of early years practitioners, access to high-quality childcare is often dictated by where someone lives, and even where supply is good, poorer families are much less likely to take up these options.

These problems are surmountable. While the evidence is not perfect, we broadly know what drives improved outcomes for lower-income families and why. Innovation can play a critical role in turning this knowledge into action. Data-driven labour market advice could help drive more applicants to early childhood training and jobs.

More deliberate design of the services delivered in pregnancy and the first year of life could deliver enormous benefits by building up parenting skills and agency from the beginning. Experimenting with different models of data sharing, or different ways to support parents to navigate services, could help improve take-up of government support. Together with partners who are experts in policy design, service delivery and have deep expertise in early childhood development, Nesta can accelerate the pace of change by overcoming barriers to progress, and resolving empirically any uncertainties that might be causing delays.

In secondary schools, our challenge is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and those disproportionately affected by COVID-19 school closures. We will form partnerships with groups of schools – combining their expertise with our own in data science, behavioural science, technology design and evaluation – to identify and grow practice that supports those children who need it most. We will continue our work supporting the effective use of EdTech platforms, helping to ensure they meet the needs of children and teachers.

A fairer start project list