Lives of the under-fives strikingly different from a generation ago

A new Nuffield Foundation evidence review published today reveals the extent of changes to family life in the UK over the last 20 years.

Children under five today are the first in which a majority are in childcare or formal education and have both parents in paid employment. Furthermore, young children today are more likely to be in blended families, have older parents and fewer siblings.

The review found that the increasing financial insecurity is posing a significant to children’s early education and development. 37% of families where the youngest child is under five are living in poverty. Rates of child poverty are higher for children from ethnic minority groups and for children living in families where there is a disabled adult or child. Almost half (48%) of lone parent families are living in poverty. This is likely to increase with the economic fallout from Covid-19.

Carey Oppenheim, author of the review and Early Childhood Lead at the Nuffield Foundation said:

‘Being a small child today is a strikingly different experience to a generation ago, as changes in family life and socio-economic circumstances intertwine to shape children’s experiences and their outcomes. Young children today are much more likely to be in formal childcare and to start school earlier. They are more likely to have older parents who are likely to both be in paid work. They are likely to have fewer siblings and a greater chance of experiencing a variety of family relationships if parents separate and re-partner. They are more likely to be living in precarious financial and housing situations and particularly so for the younger generation of parents.

‘These changes are fundamental – impacting where children are looked after and by whom and how they are spending their time. The early years are such an important stage of life that it is essential we understand fully what has changed, the inequalities between families and what we should be doing to enhance the well-being and life chances of young children over and above the confines of early years policy.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, commented:

‘This report rightly highlights how central a role early education now plays in the lives of young children, and the negative impact that a lack of access to quality early years provision can have on early learning and development, particularly for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘It’s clear then that to ensure that all children, regardless of background, get the best possible start in life, we need to have a functioning, sustainable early years and childcare sector. And yet, as this report notes, many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders across the country are at imminent risk of permanent closure as a result of both sustained government underfunding and the impact of Covid-19.

‘If the government is truly committed to supporting children and families, it simply must ensure that the early years sector gets the financial support it needs to remain viable, both now and in the long term.’

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