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Social Justice

Child poverty: Two-fifths of children under five are missing key developmental milestones

Child poverty is growing as the impact of austerity, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis take hold.

Two-fifths of children under five are missing key developmental milestones as “inequality and uncertainty” worsens, a new report has warned.

The shocking statistic, revealed by the Nuffield Foundation, exposes the extent to which poverty holds the most vulnerable children back in a report drawing on more than 18 months of research.

“Parents of young children speak about facing increasing challenges as they try to balance finances, jobs, time, the costs of childcare and housing, and being a good parent,” write the authors.

“These challenges reflect increases in insecurity among families with young children – greater self-employment and zero-hours contracts; greater fluidity in family living arrangements and forms; less secure forms of housing, and increasing early childhood poverty and inequalities.

“In the wake of the pandemic and sharply rising living costs, this insecurity risks becoming pervasive.”

In 2021, researchers measured reception class children on their communication and language skills, physical development, literacy, maths, and personal, social and emotional development.

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Just 59 per cent of children reached expected levels, a huge drop from the 72 per cent who did so in 2019.

In March, a YouGov report revealed that just half of children starting reception in 2021 were “school ready”. A third struggled to hold a pencil, while nearly one-in-twenty were not toilet trained. A quarter couldn’t follow a simple instructions and struggled to share or play with other.

But childcare professionals have described the plummeting attainment as “unsurprising”, calling for urgent intervention to prevent the problem getting worse.

The first five years of a person’s life make a huge difference to the rest of it. During this vital period, the brain develops faster than at any other point.

Early education can foster such hyperactive growth. But vulnerable children fall through the gaps – with the  pandemic worsening existing inequalities.

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“There have been increases in relative child poverty rates since 2013/14, particularly in families where the youngest child is under 5, with a concurrent rise in in-work poverty,” the report authors write.

“Rising poverty and deprivation makes it more difficult for early years and childcare, health and other services to mitigate its effects and reduce inequalities between children.”

More than a third of UK families with young children are living in poverty, with the North East the most deprived region. 

Certain communities are particularly hard hit. According to the report, over 70 per cent of families with a young child of Bangladeshi origin are in poverty. 

Though all three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of term-time state-funded early education, disadvantaged families are less likely to access this free entitlement.

On average, the report warns, 38 percent of disadvantaged two-year-olds are missing out.

As the cost of living crisis bites, it’s also increasingly difficult for parents to juggle work requirements and child care – with mothers taking on the largest burden. 

Mothers still undertake two-thirds of childcare for the under-fives. Two-thirds of these mothers are in paid work, compared to 50 per cent in 1996.

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The Nuffield Foundation has called for an “ambitious strategy” to address growing inequalities. 

Report recommendations include reforming services to direct support to the most vulnerable and reconsidering parental leave requirements.

The government also needs to tackle the broader causes of childhood poverty, the Foundation urges.

“Addressing early childhood poverty includes quality jobs for parents that enable work-care balance, improving social security benefits and support for parenting and mental health,” the report authors write. 

The Early Years Alliance – a coalition of 14,000 childcare providers – described the findings of the report as of “great concern” but “little surprise.”

CEO Neil Leitch called for an injection of funding into the beleaguered sector. 

 “All children, regardless of their background, should be able to access high quality early years education,” he said.

“Early educators have worked incredibly hard to counter the inequalities highlighted in this report, but they themselves need support to be able to continue to do so.”

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