Conservative Governments’ record on early childhood from May 2015 to pre-COVID 2020

Conservative Governments’ record on early childhood from May 2015 to pre-COVID 2020

This research used data made available via the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service, which is being expanded and improved with ADR UK funding.

Authors: Kitty Stewart and Mary Reader (Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics and Political Science)

Date: December 2020

Research summary

Secure and published data was used to examine how Conservative Governments’ policy and spending has affected early childhood experiences and opportunities. The findings identified few benefits for the policies introduced. Findings were shared with several Members of Parliament. Evidence from this project was also included in a Select Committee inquiry and an independent review, with the aim of reducing inequalities.

Using the Social Policies and Distributional Outcomes (SPDO) framework, researchers found that despite some progress on improving childcare affordability, there was little action on childcare quality. Generally, spending on young children fell and became less progressive. This widened inequalities and left early childhood services and outcomes in a precarious position at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. This research could help direct spending and policies to ensure maximum benefits for young children and their parents or carers.

Data used

This study used the National Pupil Database (NPD) made available by the Department for Education through the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service. The NPD covers all pupils within English schools up to the age of 19. Variables include exam results data by qualification for Key Stages 4 and 5, covering A-levels, GCSEs and other vocational or technical qualifications, alongside anonymised demographic and protected characteristics data.

This project used the following ONS published data:

and data from other sources:

Methods used

This project examined policies, spending and outcomes from May 2015 to February 2020, across four areas key to ensuring that children have a strong start: parental leave, parenting support, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), and financial support. Particular focus was given to the importance of narrowing inequalities among young children and their families.

These policies were assessed through evidence of ‘inputs’ (e.g. staff qualifications), ‘outputs’ (e.g. take-up of early education and childcare) and ‘outcomes’ (e.g. gaps in early cognitive development). Assessment included a final review of the latest evidence on early child outcomes, including income poverty, child health, and wider social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Research findings

A clear shift in early child spending from benefits towards services was identified. One policy extending free childcare for three- and four-year-olds of working parents from 15 to 30 hours had some positives. It improved affordability of childcare and increased employment for mothers of young children. However, this highlighted a trend in spending towards working parents and a move away from policies targeting those most in need.

Generally, there was an absence of policy focused on child development, and substantial cuts to existing provision both in financial support and key services. Benefit spending fell by 12% outweighing the 5% increase in service spending, resulting in an overall 6% decrease in spending on young children. There was also no investment in the quality of ECEC provision, and there was a fall in access to early education and high-quality provisions for more disadvantaged children. Substantial cuts to Sure Start, a programme providing services for the most disadvantaged families, squeezed provision for the very youngest children and reduced access to parenting support.

By 2020 inequalities had broadened for early childhood outcomes, including child poverty, low birthweight, and child obesity. The researchers concluded that inequalities within early childhood were in a precarious position on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research impact

This project was conducted as part of the Social Policies and Distributional Outcomes in a Changing Britain research programme (SPDO), which explores policy, spending and outcomes across ten different social policy areas. This is a major programme run by inequalities and social policy experts at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at London School of Economics and Political Science in partnership with the University of Manchester and Heriot Watt University.  The programme is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and overseen by an independent Advisory Board.

This research has been shared with several Members of Parliament and the researchers have subsequently been invited to discuss their findings with MPs and advisors. Evidence from the project has also been submitted to the Family Review, an independent review into contemporary family life conducted by the Children’s Commissioner in May 2022. It was also submitted to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry on Child Poverty.

Research outputs

Publications and reports

Presentations, blogs and news posts

About the ONS Secure Research Service

The ONS Secure Reseach Service is an accredited trusted research environment, using the Five Safes Framework to provide secure access to de-identified, unpublished data. If you would like to discuss writing a future case study with us, please get in touch:

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