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Improving outcomes for children: could ‘levelling up’ herald a new approach to policy-making?

Published

22 Feb 2022

‘Stronger evaluation and a commitment to a ‘whole-system view’ could signal a shift in the future, beyond the levelling up agenda itself, towards a government approach that puts learning and evaluation at the heart of policy-making.’ EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on some important opportunities for change in this month’s levelling up white paper.

Earlier this month, the government published the much-anticipated levelling up white paper – Levelling Up the United Kingdom – setting out how they plan to reduce inequalities and spread opportunity more equally across the UK. The principle underpinning the levelling up agenda is that everyone should have the same opportunities to thrive in life, no matter where they live. At EIF, we know that this is particularly crucial for children and young people.

We are pleased to see that the white paper has gone beyond a focus on physical infrastructure. Investment in transport, housing and digital connectivity is certainly important. But for these investments to have a long-term impact, we must also ensure we are securing the best start in life for our children and young people. At EIF, we have consistently called for investment in the kind of social infrastructure that supports children and young people, such as the early years, school readiness, young people’s resilience and mental health, and evidence-based services to support the most vulnerable families.

So we were pleased to see the commitment to investment in ‘social capital’ in the white paper. This includes high-quality early years education as part of the proposed policy programme, specifically committing to significantly increasing the number of children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.

We know that investment like this is crucial. Wide and persistent gaps in children’s development can appear early and these gaps matter for a person’s future outcomes. For example, the Department for Education has estimated that individuals with five or more good GCSEs as their highest qualification have lifetime productivity gains of £100,000 on average, compared to those with qualifications below this level. When compared with children with no qualifications, these gains are £260,000.

We look forward to seeing more detail on some of these education goals in the forthcoming schools white paper.

As well as schools, we know that the family and home environment is crucial for improving children’s outcomes. We have previously welcomed the additional £200 million committed in the spending review to expand the Supporting Families programme in England, which aims to reach 300,000 vulnerable families across the UK. The spending review also committed investment into a number of other family support services, including breastfeeding support, parenting support services and support for perinatal mental health, many of which were outlined in Andrea Leadsom’s Best Start for Life review earlier last year.

But there are other, more subtle ways in which the proposals in the white paper have the potential to help more children and families. The proposed new policy regime which prioritises evaluation and accountability, and empowers local decision-making, is something EIF has long advocated for. The commitment to improved departmental accountability, including updated outcome delivery plans, means more onus on government departments to account for how they are delivering levelling up goals, including those with the potential to support children. More joint working between departments should mean stronger policy in relation to those cross-cutting family issues that currently involve a number of departments and agencies. And this focus on stronger national and local accountability mechanisms – including the setting out of clear and measurable targets across 12 ‘missions’ – has the potential to improve a range of policy initiatives related to children’s outcomes in the future.

The focus on data and monitoring could and should be applied to all policies related to children’s outcomes. Stronger evaluation and a commitment to a ‘whole-system view’ could signal a shift in the future, beyond the levelling up agenda itself, towards a government approach that puts learning and evaluation at the heart of policy-making.

So what next? With the economic stimulation anticipated by the white paper policies comes additional opportunities. We know that one of the most important routes to levelling up is action to tackle child poverty. The impact of poverty and economic disadvantage on family relationships and children’s outcomes is well established, with evidence consistently showing associations between poverty and child maltreatment, adverse childhood experiences, worse physical health, low birth weight, mental health problems, decreased educational attainment, and increased risky behaviours. Tackling child poverty remains a crucial way to level up and decrease inequalities, and more action is needed here.

The white paper has committed to a programme of engagement with wider stakeholders on a wide range of issues as the process continues, including on setting and delivering missions and metrics. There is also likely to be a specific expert advisory committee on local communities and social infrastructure. It’s vital that children and families, and those that support them, are heard throughout each stage of development, and that every opportunity is taken to put children at the heart of the conversation.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is chief executive at EIF.