The Independent View: Slashing early years spending contradicts the desire to improve social mobility

In its Social Mobility strategy launched last April, the government made clear the dual priorities shaping its agenda:

“Tackling the financial deficit is the Coalition’s most immediate task. But tackling the opportunity deficit – creating an open, socially mobile society – is our guiding purpose.”

These are strong words indeed, marking an unequivocal commitment to improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. At a very minimum, they indicate a clear intention to manage the necessary public spending cuts in a way that recognises this laudable goal.

Last week, an analysis by the IFS revealed an expected fall in public spending on education of 3.5% per year in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15. Far more striking, however, are the discrepancies in the severity of cuts to be felt by the different areas within the education budget. Spending on schools, for example, will be essentially protected (with projected cuts of around only 1%). In stark contrast, the Early Intervention Grant – encompassing Sure Start and other early years spending – is expected to face an overall cut of around 22%. It is this deep and disproportionate cutting of early years spending that actually flies in the face of the stated desire to improve social mobility.

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence indicating that early intervention and a focus on the early years of child development are where the biggest differences can be made. The government itself has received two powerful reports on precisely this theme: those by Frank Field and Graham Allen.

The scientific evidence on the crucial importance of early brain development to later life chances –- outlined in detail by the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child -– is clearly established. So too, thanks to Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman, is the economic case for the cost effectiveness of early interventions over later remedial programmes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prevention is better than cure.

All this evidence points categorically to the conclusion reached by Nick Clegg himself in response to the Allen report: “The foundations of a fairer, more socially mobile society are laid in the critical early years of life.”

If the Coalition is genuinely serious in its desire to significantly improve social mobility and create a fairer society, it should therefore be protecting and even prioritising early years spending, rather than slashing it. Ring-fencing school spending -– although it may appease more people -– will not be enough. Continuing the blanket subsidy on travel and fuel for pensioners regardless of need will certainly do nothing to help, and a move towards means-testing would easily cover the proposed cuts to the Early Intervention Grant.

The government is certainly doing some positive things in early years -– including expanding the free pre-school offer to disadvantaged two year-olds and the recently announced piloting of universal parenting classes. However, the IFS projections indicate quite clearly that there are elements within government -– possibly within the Department for Education itself -– that still have not grasped the crucial importance of the early intervention agenda.

The key point is that social mobility is not in fact just a ‘social’ issue: it is also a deeply economic one. One estimate predicts that failure to improve levels of social mobility could cost the UK economy as much as £140 billion each year by 2050 in wasted potential.

We are repeatedly being told that it is necessary to address the deficit now because it is ‘unfair to burden future generations with debt’. It is surely equally unfair to burden those generations with an ossified society that is both morally and economically flawed.

The Coalition should, in effect, be prepared to put its money, however limited, where its mouth is. Its own evidence indicates clearly that the biggest differences can be made by intervening early. Slashing early years spending by over a fifth is contradictory in the extreme with a ‘guiding purpose’ of improving social mobility.

* Chris Paterson is a researcher for the independent liberal think-tank CentreForum.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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4 Comments

  • Oranjepan- if we’re presenting spurious binary ‘choices’, how about the choice between giving councils 250 million quid for weekly bin collections, and proper education for children in their formative years? Or maybe we could accept that these selectively chosen choices of yours are total nonsense from start to finish. That would be quicker.

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