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The coronavirus lockdown supposedly forced families across the UK into the same experience at the same time: confined to their homes, sharing the kitchen table for education, work and play. However, the pandemic experience of one family has been radically different to that of another. 

A house, with a garden, technology and space for home-schooling and working, with parents who have the time, energy, and inclination to take an interest in a child’s education, is not equivalent to a small flat with a stressed, overworked or unemployed parent and no access to a laptop. Far from being the great leveller, coronavirus has exacerbated inequalities that have always been present. 

These inequalities begin early and have a dramatic effect in the first few years of a child’s life. New parents are supported through antenatal classes, by midwives and by health visitors. As a society, we seem to recognise the need to teach parents at this stage. And yet, once a child receives their last injections, this support all but disappears – until they arrive at school. These early years might better be termed the ‘lost years’, and life chances are severely diminished by them. 

During these lost years, the gap between those from wealthier, and those from more deprived backgrounds, becomes pronounced. By the time they arrive at school, children from disadvantaged backgrounds lag behind their peers by an average of 4.3 months of learning. Once the gap appears, it is very hard to close. By GCSE stage, a chasm of 19 months has appeared. 

This Government’s commitment to social justice, with targeted regeneration initiatives such as the £24 million investment to drive up school standards in the North East, is very welcome. But interventions like these focus largely on school-age children. To level up opportunity and life outcomes, we need to address the early years. 

There is overwhelming evidence that inadequate parenting is one of the most important drivers of social inequalities in a child’s cognitive development before school. The Sutton Trust, Resolution Foundation, Early Intervention Foundation and many others have concluded that the quality of parenting impacts both cognitive and socio-economic outcomes. 

Ten years ago I stood for Parliament in an inner London seat and was struck by the lack of parenting ability of many young disadvantaged families. It seemed as obvious to me then as now that the best way to help improve these children’s chances was to educate their parents in how to care for them. It led me to co-found Parent Gym, which now delivers 100 programmes a term in areas of greatest need.

The benefits of the programme on parenting outcomes and the mental health of participants have been verified by Warwick University. When Boris Johnson visited a Parent Gym programme as Mayor of London he described it as “one of the most hopeful things [he] had ever seen”. 

If the Government were to do one thing to improve the chances of future generations, it would be to develop a long overdue parenting support strategy for the early years. It should cover the first 1,001 critical days from conception to entry into nursery education, and coordinate efforts between the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care. 

The other most reliable way to equip our children is by improved nursery provision. This is already the norm in Denmark and other Nordic countries, with 98% of children aged three to six attending quality nursery. While the Government has committed to funding maintained nursery schools by 2021, our early years learning provision needs urgent attention to increase the number, duration and quality of places. There is a compelling case for it when children who attend quality preschool for two to three years gain eight months in their literacy development. 

Along with parenting and early years learning provision, there is a strong case for the adoption of a universal measure for understanding children’s vulnerability: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score. This is an impressive and proven measure of early years development and risks. Many studies show that a number of ACEs – such as living with mental health issues, alcohol or drug dependency, violent or sexual abuse as well as childhood bereavement or family break-up – can have serious impact on health, education, opportunity and even life expectancy. The ACE score has been endorsed by the British Psychological Society and the Early Intervention Foundation and is successfully used in children’s services in the US. Combined with the right interventions, it would provide a vital unifying framework for childhood support. 

The likelihood is that we are about to enter a deep recession and interventions on the scale suggested here are expensive, but COVID-19 has shown us that the lost years cost us all. The correlation of poverty, obesity and chronic health conditions has meant increased rates of hospital admission and death among the disadvantaged. There is a moral imperative both to help these children and to invigorate our nation’s prospects. The lost years can eventually mean lost lives. It is time to act.

Joanne Cash is the Chair of Mind Gym plc and the Co-Founder of Parent Gym. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Family friendly?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.