Last reviewed 1 July 2022

New research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found that inequalities in early childhood remain stubbornly high, and there was little change between those born in the early 2000s and those born a decade later.

The research shows that inequalities in early cognitive, social and emotional development have persisted despite unprecedented public investments in the early years over the past 20 years, and evidence that targeted policy interventions such as the Sure Start scheme had positive impacts on disadvantaged families and children.

The report states that although there have been improvements in some aspects of early home environments, such as the frequency with which parents read to their children, there have been deteriorations in other areas, such as a rising prevalence of maternal mental health problems.

Other key findings of the research include the following.

  • Children’s skills develop highly unequally in the early years, with differences strongly related to family background.

  • Large differences in the material, emotional and educational aspects of the home environment are key to explaining many of the inequalities in children’s early skills.

  • The early years shape later life outcomes to a remarkable degree.

The authors argue that the persistence of inequalities likely reflects the complex and multiple factors affecting child development, and the fact that much of the increased public spending has been on childcare places and childcare subsidies for the over-twos, while the primary determinants of early development are in the family home and operate from the very earliest stages of life.

Professor Alissa Goodman, Director of the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and an author of the research, said:

“The environments that children are raised in, and their development of cognitive, social and emotional skills early in life, are not only key determinants of their experience of childhood — they also profoundly shape their prospects as adults. Early years policies in the UK need to focus more on supporting families during the earliest years (ages 0–2), including through adequate income and housing, ensuring high-quality mental health care, and supporting early parenting, attachment and relationships during this vital period.”

The full report is available here.