Nesta’s 18 reasons to prioritise the early years of a child’s life

In 2017, Nesta launched the Early Years Social Action Fund to scale proven social action programmes that help children aged four to achieve developmental milestones by directly supporting parents.  The £1 million fund was used to support organisations that are making an impact, but require support to scale up. Having supported dozens of social action programmes to scale, Nesta have seen that social action works best when there is a clear role to complement, not replace public services, where opportunities fit in and around people’s lives and where any skills needed can be codified and learnt by many.

As the UK struggles with challenges of stagnating social mobility, increasing inequality, and lagging productivity, Nesta have compiled a list of 18 reasons why the early years of a child’s life are so important for social mobility and people’s life chances which show why in 2018 we need to do more to support new ideas that help give all children the best chance to fulfil their potential.

18 reasons to prioritise early years in 2018

  1. By the time children start school, the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers can be as large as 15 months.

  2. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by age three.

  3. Almost half of all children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not reach their expected level of development when they start school (29 per cent of all children).

  4. In the last decade, more than 2.5 million children in England – including over 580,000 poorer children – did not reach a good level of development by age five.

  5. Opportunity is very unevenly distributed. Disadvantaged children in the best areas are twice as likely to reach a good level of development at age five, compared with similar children in the worst areas.

  6. Gaps are evident by age two and a child’s development at as young as 22 months has been proven to be a good predictor for educational outcomes at age 26.

  7. Of the £9.1 billion the UK Government is spending on early years, just £250 million will reach the most disadvantaged families. Or just 2.7 per cent.

  8. In 2012, the UK was ranked 22nd out of 25 OECD countries for the proportion of expenditure in early years focused on closing the gap in opportunity.

  9. In almost all OECD countries, 15-year-old students who had access to early education outperformed students who had not.

  10. The gap between disadvantaged children and their peers in numeracy and literacy is particularly stark, with a 14 per cent gap in reading attainment, 15 per cent in writing, and 13 per cent in numbers.

  11. The lowest gap is in technology, which if harnessed properly, could potentially help lower the gaps in other areas.

  12. Good early education opportunities improve child outcomes regardless of family disadvantage or the quality of the home learning environment.

  13. The gap in educational attainment by the time a child starts school is one of the key drivers of social mobility, equivalent to, for example, up to two years of learning by the time they sit their GSCEs.

  14. The biggest indicator in how well a child does in their GCSEs is the progress that child has made by the age of five.

  15. Better educational attainment leads to higher qualifications and higher wages later in life.

  16. Top university graduates earn significantly more, on average, than graduates from less prestigious universities, and non-university graduates.

  17. Social mobility is a key driver in productivity and economic growth. A modest increase in the UK’s social mobility to the average across Western Europe would increase annual GDP by 2 per cent in the long term (or an additional £39bn to the UK economy).

  18. The quality of the home learning environment is more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income. In other words, what parents do at home is more important than who your parents are.

These 18 reasons go to show that early years is at the heart of social mobility. They underscore the importance – both at an individual and societal level – of focusing on ideas and interventions that can impact child outcomes as soon as possible so that no child begins school behind the starting line.

If you would like to find out more about the Early Years Social Action programme, any of the specific projects or how you can commission early years innovations, please get in touch at