26th March 2018

Growing up North: Early years development

Author: Anna Round, IPPR North 

In our 2015 State of the North report, IPPR North identified ‘early years gaps’ as a key challenges to social and economic progress. Two in particular gave cause for concern. Fewer than half (47 per cent) of children from the poorest ten per cent of households in the North were judged to have achieved a good level of development, compared to 59 per cent of the equivalent group in London (across the UK, the rate was 54 per cent).

Within the north, the gap between the percentage of children in the most and least deprived groups who achieve a good level of development stood at 25 percentage points; in London it was just 15 per cent. Material poverty threatens your chance of a good start wherever you’re born – but that threat seemed to be greater in the North than in the capital. These gaps – between regions and between social groups – represent a barrier to building a real ‘powerhouse’ in the North.

In 2017 60 per cent of the poorest children in the North of England achieved a good level of development, compared to 62 per cent across England and 69 per cent in London. That gap is closing, albeit slowly. The ‘deprivation gap’ has also narrowed a little, standing at 19 percentage points in the north. In London it has barely moved.

Optimism may be in order but it should remain cautious. At GCSE level, both the socio-economic and the geographical divides are stark. In our 2016 report, Schools for the North, we noted a stubborn association between family income and school outcomes. This emerges in study after study, including the Department for Education’s 2017 analysis of the relationship between family circumstances and education. In addition, the gap between London and the regions persists throughout the school career.

Yet within the North there are many beacons of good practice. For all social class groups, early years results in the North East are above the national average. And some northern schools achieve excellent results – and, just as importantly, experiences – later on in the school career, regardless of social background or place.

Those first steps are crucial. International evidence shows an association between high quality early years education and attainment later on. We know that development is shaped by what a child encounters during this crucial period. Children with access to a stimulating and varied range of experiences have an advantage, but that access, to a large extent, depends on their parents’ social and economic resources. For older learners the provision that helps them engage with school and learning opportunities demands time, teacher expertise – and funding.

We need to know more about the lives of young children in the North of England. What kinds of early education are available in different places, and how do parents and carers go about accessing them? What are informal settings like, and how do they interact with nursery or childcare provision? And how does early learning of different kinds sit alongside the rest of a child’s life, such as their health, their cultural settings, and the local economy? At IPPR North, we’re keen to establish a ‘Northern Early Years Commission’ to help find answers and develop practical policies.

We also need bold visions of how devolved regions can take the initiative to make a change for their future citizens. Should a northern mayor pledge to offer universal free early years education across her region, or to integrate family services with childcare? And as devolved areas take on responsibility for adult and post-compulsory learning, what are the advantages of giving them a bigger say in policy for schools? As power is passed – albeit gradually – to the north, this chance to take control of the future cannot be missed. The economic argument is clear, and the human argument is compelling.

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