All born equal? Tackling social inequalities from birth to five to safeguard lifelong wellbeing

This post discusses the importance of highlighting and tackling social inequality and its effects upon the health and wellbeing of children from birth to five. It is linked to the author's current PhD project, exploring the multi-dimensional relationships between social inequality, wellbeing and play in children aged zero to five. The project considers these topics through the lens of current and trainee Early Years professionals and parents of children aged birth to five.

Hannah Malpass
Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant and PhD Student

Image showing gender inequality

Rising child poverty

In 1999, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair made an ambitious claim that he aimed to eradicate child poverty by 2020 (Blair, 1999). In 2019 it was reported by Save the Children that UK child poverty levels had actually increased by over a quarter since 2010 (Save The Children, 2019). This data was published before the Covid-19 pandemic and therefore the impact of this is yet to be seen. However, it is expected that data will show that child poverty has risen once again due to job losses, changes in circumstances and loss of support services during the pandemic.

Social inequality and wellbeing

Preliminary findings in my own research show that both parents and professionals acknowledge a clear link between social inequality and lower levels of wellbeing with several parents commenting on the stigmatisation of the working classes and therefore the stress that this puts on adults. Professionals have highlighted a link between social inequality and child wellbeing through the suggestion that children who live in disadvantaged families do not have the same access to play resources as those in more affluent households and that this can directly affect their development of social skills and language.

In support of this argument, previous research carried out by Stirrup, Evans and Davies (2017) reported that social class has a significant effect upon the way that early educators perceive different children. They reported that children from disadvantaged backgrounds often found it difficult to access the play opportunities on offer and to interact positively with their peers and that this led to practitioners labelling them as ‘odd’ or ‘difficult’. Stirrup et al. (2017) suggest that this stigmatisation is likely to stay with the child as they move through the education system and the child is likely to suffer lower levels of wellbeing as they become aware that others view them as ‘odd’.

Long term consequences

Social inequality inevitably puts a huge strain on families. Families who are in a poor financial situation often suffer greater mental and physical health difficulties due to stress, poor nutrition, and poor living conditions.

For children, this is particularly significant since these mental and physical health problems can have an immediate and a longer term impact upon their cognitive development and attainment at school. Children who live in disadvantaged families consistently score lower on cognitive tests at age seven (Sullivan, Ketende and Joshi, 2013) meaning that their opportunity to build strong foundations upon which to continue lifelong learning is more limited than their more advantaged peers.

In addition, a child who is born into a family living in disadvantage is, on average, likely to die seven years earlier than a child born to more affluent parents (Marmot et. al., 2010). Marmot et. al. (2010) carried out an independent review of the relationship between social and health inequalities and found them to be inextricably linked. They also highlighted that the first five years are the most important period in a child’s life in terms of addressing and overcoming these inequalities. In support of this, Morrison, Pikhart and Goldblatt (2017) reported that interventions commenced before a child turns five are the most influential on addressing the issues attached to social disadvantage. 

Calls for support

Marmot et al. (2010) focused a lot of their recommendations on the provision of high quality Early Years education and targeted support for families most in need. However, in a follow-up report in 2020, Marmot et al. found that few of their recommendations had been actioned and that since their report support for disadvantaged families such as the Sure Start Initiative have been removed due to lack of government funding.

As a result of Covid-19 other support available to parents and families has been significantly limited over the last 12-months. Children had a period of several months during the first lockdown where even universal nursery provision was removed and, even following this, the uptake of nursery places has been shown to be lower, perhaps due to parental anxiety or changes in working patterns.

Within the sector it is hoped that research that is just beginning such as the project by The Childhood Commission, which is being dubbed as the “new Beveridge Report”, will inform future practice and make practical suggestions for ways in which to reduce the effect of social inequality on young children.

Further research

My PhD project explores this topic in further detail. My research aims to investigate the multi-dimensional relationships between social inequality, wellbeing and play in young children. The project is being carried out through the lens of current and trainee Early Years professionals and parents of children aged birth to five.

Further information on the project.

If you are an Early Years professional or a parent of a young child and you would like to contribute to this research, please consider completing an online survey. 

Professionals can complete the survey here.  

Parents can complete the survey here