Government action to tackle poverty should focus on supporting children during the first five years of their lives, the Labour MP commissioned by David Cameron to carry out a review of the issue said.
Former welfare minister Frank Field said that attainment by the age of five matters as much – if not more than – what happens in school, with children with poor development at that age more than six times as likely to end up with no worthwhile qualifications. Mr Field was the guest of honour at last night’s 19th Attlee Memorial Lecture, hosted by Haileybury’s Political Society.
In a progress report on his Poverty and Life Chances review, handed to the Prime Minister this week, Mr Field called for the establishment of an "Index of Life Opportunities" to identify children in need of support in their earliest years.
And he said the pre-school period – from conception to age five – should be renamed the Foundation Years and be viewed as part of every child’s educational life.
In his speech to hundreds of pupils and staff who had gathered in Big School, Mr Field said: "This isn’t rocket science. It is where hard evidence comes together with common sense. Good parenting and home learning environments matter most to young children’s eventual life chances, more than extra money and more than schools."
By the age of five, children from poorer homes have much lower levels of social and cognitive development, on average, than those from rich backgrounds, the Birkenhead MP said.
And schools are "not successful" in closing these gaps, resulting in "huge achievement gaps" between the two groups by the end of secondary schooling.
But research showed that "income alone is not the main driver" of this educational inequality, said Mr Field.
"What happens to children in the first five years of life matters as much, if not more than, what happens in schools, yet around seven times as much public money is spent on educating children in schools than on helping parents during critical pre-school years," he said.
The proposed Index would measure children’s social and emotional development, cognitive and language skills, communication skills and well-being – the indicators which make the most difference to long-term development.
The Attlee Memorial Lecture is an annual event organised by the Political Society to honour Haileybury’s most eminent former pupil, Clement Attlee.