Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The early years imperative

The royal baby reminds us that inequality starts at birth, writes Jack May

Congratulations to the happy couple – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, now parents of three heirs to the throne in lanes three, four, and five. An heir, a spare, and a possible future tabloid liability – thus are the chief functions of a prince and princess fulfilled.

Whatever your views on monarchy and its place in 21st century Britain, each royal birth presents us with a stark reminder – some people are given a vastly advantageous start in life, which kicks in from day one.

The sight of Prince George walking alongside Prince William and Princess Charlotte to meet his new brother, bedecked in his Thomas’ prep school uniform, is just one indication of how these royal children grow up in a position most would spend a career striving to be able to afford for their own.

And while Labour’s most seductive policy pledge in last year’s general election – free tuition at tertiary education level, with the tantalising possibility of writing off debts for those who attended during the hard-and-graft years of high fees – may have been a great electoral boon, and by some arguments would increase participation in higher education (though there remains little credible evidence that post-2012 fees have significantly harmed access to higher education) it misses the point. The point that the royal princes and princess remind us of.

The evidence is increasingly overwhelming that the first years of a person’s life are key to determining their life chances – in terms of health, future income, welfare and how long they live.

According to a European Union study released earlier this year, early years education provides benefits on three fronts: for the individual (via access to higher education and better health) for parents (via the ability to return to the labour market and increase earnings), and socially (via reduced spending on welfare, lower crime rates, higher tax revenues and lower spending on healthcare).

Furthermore, the Independent Review of Poverty and Life Chances, led by Frank Field and published in 2010, also found ‘overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life.’

📖 How (not) to solve a problem like education 

Labour’s track record on this issue in the past is formidable. The work of the New Labour government to tackle child poverty – startlingly high in 1997 after years of Tory administration – was impressive, and remained in situ until Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies under David Cameron’s first government caused it to rise again. Now, the Conservative government’s continued push for austerity over investment and savings over sense may mean child poverty returns to levels not seen for 16 years.

Sure Start centres, New Labour’s other great achievement for our youngest and most important citizens, contributed to more stable home lives for the poorest children, improved mental health for their parents, and increased social skills among both the children and adults involved, according to an Oxford University study.

Even the coalition government’s early years evidence pack, published by the department for education under Michael Gove’s ministry, included the citation that ‘the Sure Start programme as a whole is one of the most innovative and ambitious government initiatives of the past two decades.’

On other, even more specific levels, we know that the environment of a child’s first years make a vast difference to their future ability to realise their full potential. Having books in the house was found to be strongly linked to the future academic attainment of children in a study across 42 countries, while having trees on your urban street can indicate an income differential of around $10,000.

Labour has a proud record of taking action on this issue – and a succession of key figures who have been willing to take up its mantle. Gordon Brown called child poverty the ‘most tangible expression’ of New Labour’s ‘bigger moral and economic purpose’ in a speech in 2004, and named it the ‘scar that demeans Britain’ in his 2008 conference speech.

Liz Kendall’s leadership bid in 2015 deemed early years education a ‘top priority’ while Yvette Cooper – with her ministerial experience behind her – promised to make Labour the party of early years and the party of families in her campaign.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s current inspirational shadow education secretary, and one of the party’s few true frontbrench talents, has spoken extensively of her own experience with Sure Start centres and the vital early years care that helped her when she became a mother at 16, and has said that Labour would reverse £500m worth of cuts to Sure Start centres.

Behind the scenes, there are claims that she grumbled at Labour’s 2017 decision to focus on tuition fees – an £11bn red herring – instead of promising more serious funding for Sure Start and early years education.

📖 It is no surprise that elite universities are unequal: it is a symptom of our unfair education system

In the meantime, the current policy platform indicates that Labour would spend £11bn on free tuition while tossing a small bone of £500m towards Sure Start centres, merely reversing historic cuts rather than going further. This is all part of the as yet unclear National Education Service, which has been waved around as an attempt to make education safe Labour ground in the same way as the NHS currently is.

If the National Education Service is a serious proposal, it must include universally available – if not universally compulsory – early years coverage for all young children at risk (whether they are part of rich or poor families) and those growing up in low-income households. It must go further than reversing the £500m cuts – it must expand the Sure Start programme and build on its previous success.

It would do well, too, to emulate the model provided by other European countries and introduce compulsory nursery and pre-school education from a younger age than the current five years old – a locally led, nationally tested and guaranteed, play-based and interactive learning-focussed dedication to fostering the social skills and readiness to learn that is so vital in the later years of schooling.

A National Education Service means nothing if it ignores the youngest learners – reinforcing a regressive model where the first decade of your life sets your chances in stone instead of opening up your opportunities for later on.

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Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets at @JackO_May

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