Child development a ‘life chances postcode lottery’

The poorest children in wealthy local authorities are falling behind on key development goals compared to their richer peers by the age of five, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found.

Analysis from the charity showed that the local authorities with the worst performance were Bath and North East Somerset, Rutland, Cumbria, Leicestershire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Liverpool, Dudley and Wakefield.

In these areas, less than half of five-year-olds on free school meals reached a good level of development for reading, writing and social and emotional literacy.

Four of these authorities had the lowest levels of child poverty, suggesting that poorer children in richer areas are more likely to struggle.

In Rutland, Windsor and Maidenhead and Bath and North East Somerset, the gap in attainment between children on free school meals and those without was over 30%.

Helen Barnard, head of analysis at the Foundation, said: “This research shows how poverty reaches every corner of the country. Children’s life chances are subject to a postcode lottery, where their prospects are harmed by where they are born and the income of their parents. These figures show stark divides across the country – not just in areas which traditionally struggle, but also wealthy ones, where poorer children fare particularly badly.

“Family stability and parental support are the bedrock of children’s lives, so what happens in the home matters, but high-quality childcare can make all the difference in helping poorer kids catch up and be ready to start school.”

To level the opportunities for children, she recommended that the government should focus on improving the quality of early-years childcare, as well as provision.

This could include establishing a £111m Early Excellence Fund, providing more staff training, moving towards a graduate-led workforce, and collecting Ofsted data on staff qualifications, turnover and retention rates in nurseries.

At age five, children who have had high-quality childcare for the past two to three years are eight months ahead of children who have not been in pre-school in literacy.

Last month, the government admitted that closures of Sure Start early years centres almost doubled in 2015. In an attempt to curb the postcode lottery, the Foundation said that government and local authorities should establish a family hub in every area to bring together services for families and children, and create an effective early intervention network for those that need it.

However, the research found improvement overall, with 69% of children and 54% of those on free school meals achieving a good level of performance. In London and the South East nearly three-quarters of children reached a good level, while authorities in the Midlands and the North were below average levels of performance.

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