Childcare and education

Over the last decade there has been a significant shift of emphasis in social policy to early years interventions targeted to help children from poorer backgrounds. In many respects this focus is welcome: it acknowledges, for example, that disadvantage starts from birth and needs to be corrected for from the outset of children’s lives.

Yet despite the widespread recognition of the critical importance of the early years, governments often fail to acknowledge the reality of child poverty and to design interventions that truly tackle the hardships that poor children encounter. We know that the home environment is the most significant influence on children in their early years and while good quality nursery care and education can supplement this, it cannot substitute for an impoverished home life.

Moreover, the focus on early education has sometimes distracted attention from the school years. Evidence shows, for example, that wealthier areas attract more experienced teachers and often more funding than poorer regions. And poverty impedes children from taking full advantage of educational opportunities in more subtle ways: living in cold or overcrowded conditions and having no place to do homework, not being able to afford to join friends on a school trip, or being teased about not having the ‘right’ clothes all militate against a positive experience of school.

Education must be viewed as an essential strand of any strategy designed to tackle child poverty. The following pages highlight some of the shortcomings of the current system which must be addressed if poorer children are to reap the full benefits of education.