Kitty Stewart and Mary Reader
Published 1 February 2021
This paper uses the Social Policies and Distributional Outcomes framework to evaluate the record of successive Conservative administrations on early childhood during the period between 2015 and the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. The paper covers services and benefits for families with children under five, with a focus on England. The paper analyses early childhood policies and goals during this period, the level and distribution of public spending on services and benefits, and their impact on inputs (such as staff qualifications), outputs (such as take-up of early education and childcare) and outcomes (such as gaps in early cognitive development). The paper points to a mixed record on policies for young children and their families: there was progress on improving childcare affordability, but little action on childcare quality, while Sure Start children’s centres continued to be squeezed and cash benefits were cut. Overall, spending on young children fell and became less progressive. By 2020 inequalities had widened in a range of early child outcomes, including child poverty, low birthweight and child obesity. This left early childhood – and inequalities within it in particular – in a precarious position on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic.