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Levelling up: 10 areas where children have been left behind

Thursday 09 December 2021
Young girl climbing outdoors on a jungle gym at a park.jpg

As the government’s levelling up policy evolves, what exactly does it mean for children and where does it need to happen?

Action for Children’s Head of Policy & Research Joe Lane explains, revealing the top 10 parts of England where children have fallen furthest behind:

All governments aim to improve children’s lives. This government was elected on the promise that ‘every child should have the same opportunity to express their talents and make the most of their lives.’ If the government are going to make progress towards that goal, children must be central to its ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The childhood postcode lottery

Across the UK, the quality of children’s lives is too strongly influenced by where they are born. The government knows that. There is plenty of data that paints a picture of the barriers children face to fulfilling their potential.

There are broadly three types of information used to understand children’s lives:

  • Their underlying circumstances – such as how many children are in poverty, in workless households, or who experience domestic violence
  • The services available to them – such as the availability of family hubs, school quality, or provision of youth work and family support
  • Their outcomes – such as readiness for school, or how they do in their GCSEs

Three priorities for 'levelling up'

To guide its approach to levelling up, the government should set clear goals across these different measures.  Here are three good places to start:

1. Level up child poverty

First, government should look at the underlying factors that act as barriers to children fulfilling their potential. There is strong evidence that poverty, or growing up in a low-income household, has a negative impact on children’s outcomes.

Looking at the government’s preferred measure of poverty – absolute poverty before housing costs - 20% of children under 16 in England were in poverty in 2020. That is over 2 million children*. In total, 60 of 152 local authorities have higher-than-average child poverty rates.

(*It’s worth noting that this hugely undercounts the number of children growing up in low-income households, which can be better measured by using relative poverty after housing costs. By that measure, well over 4 million children are in poverty)

If the government levelled up the areas with above average child poverty – reducing child poverty to a maximum of 20% everywhere – that would mean 300,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty.

2. Level up 'school readiness'

Second, the government should focus on the effectiveness of early years provision. The best predictor of school outcomes is how well a child has done earlier on in their education and development.

Currently, young children’s development is measured by whether they have reached a ‘Good Level of Development’ or are ‘school-ready’. This is a good indicator of achievement later in life.

On average, 72% of children in England reach a Good Level of Development at the end of reception – meaning they are “school ready”. It is less than that in 81 local authorities.

If the government levelled up school readiness across the country – to the current national average of 72% of children aged five – that would mean an additional 8,000 five-year-olds being ready for school every year.

3. Level up local authority spending on early intervention

Finally, the government should look at how focused children’s services are on early intervention. The government’s guidance on how policy should protect vulnerable children is that ‘providing early help is more effective in promoting the welfare of children than reacting later.’

That is not only true for the children involved. Research shows it also makes good financial sense. Cutting early intervention spending by £1 results in an increase in spending on late intervention of £1.05.

Despite that, since 2010 spending on early intervention children’s services in England has nearly halved. On average, local authorities now spend £163 per child on early intervention, while 92 of 152 areas spend less than that.

If the government levelled up spending on early intervention – so that all local authorities reached the current average spend of £163 per child – that would mean an additional £420 million a year spent on family hubs, youth services, and family support. That spending may also save the government money in the long run.

Map of Birmingham and surrounds

Where are children most in need of levelling up?

Taking these three measures together, it's clear that some areas of the country are far more in need of levelling up for children than others.

We ranked each local authority in England by how far children are behind – how much ‘levelling up’ they need -by each factor. Read on to discover who made the top 10 across each factor:

The levelling up league table:

Having crunched the numbers, the 10 local authorities in England most in need of levelling up for children are:

  1. Sandwell
  2. Walsall
  3. Stoke-on-Trent
  4. Birmingham
  5. Manchester
  6. Bradford
  7. Dudley
  8. Leicester
  9. Coventry
  10. Middlesborough

Top 10 areas where children are most behind

Levelling up league table

Our table reveals the top 10 areas most in need of levelling up - and how far they are behind the average

What can government do to help?

As we’ve seen, there’s a lot to be done to level the playing field for children across the UK. The good news is that our three recommended measures – spending on early intervention, school-readiness aged five and child poverty – can be directly targeted by government policy. Here are three ways the government can help:

  1. Boost spending on early intervention services. Planned investment in Family Hubs, Supporting Families, and youth services is a step in the right direction. The government should now commit to rolling out family hubs across the country.
  2. Ensure all new parents get the support they need. There are gaps in government policy for young children, which has overwhelmingly been focused on providing childcare. Families need more support to give their children the best start in life, but our recent research shows that, too often, they’re not getting it.  The government should make parenting support services a part of the core offer in family hubs.
  3. Tackle child poverty. The pandemic has highlighted just how many families struggle to make ends meet. The government should commit to a new child poverty strategy, including reviewing how the social security system can best be used to lift children out of poverty.

Levelling up would have a big impact

Success in the three areas we’ve outlined would have a huge impact for children. If achieved,  levelling up in this way would mean:

  • 300,000 fewer children struggling against the effects of growing up in a low-income household
  • 8,000 more five-year-olds deemed 'school ready', having reached the necessary developmental milestones
  • £420 million a year invested in vital services like youth work and family hubs

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