Published 12 November 2013
When Labour came to power in 1997 it made commitments to reduce poverty and improve children’s health, education and wider life chances. Early childhood was considered central to the strategy, and considerable resources were invested in very young children. This paper examines the main policies introduced affecting children under five, including longer maternity leave, Sure Start Children’s Centres, free early education for all three and four year olds, more affordable and higher quality childcare, and more generous financial support for families with children, both in and out of work. The paper draws on government statistics and evaluations as well as wider evidence from a range of independent sources to examine where increased spending went, and with what impact. Children’s outcomes improved on a range of measures during this period. Child poverty fell from one in three to one in four in households with a youngest child under five. Low birthweight and infant mortality rates (IMR) fell, and Foundation Stage Profile results improved. In all three measures gaps between different social groups narrowed. Research evaluations, where available, point to small but significant effects of particular policies, including Sure Start, the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative and the Graduate Leader Fund. However, in the absence of more widespread evidence from evaluations it is difficult to attribute changes in outcomes directly to changes in policy. The paper discusses these challenges and considers a series of ‘tests’ of Labour’s impact, including whether improvements represent a change in a longer-term trend, and, where possible, how outcomes compare in international terms.