State of the Nation – perception of early years in the UK 2020 

Felicity Gillespie, Director Kindred2

Kindred2 are delighted to support the report ‘State of the Nation: Perceptions of the Early Years in the UK’ released today by The Royal Foundation. The UK’s biggest ever study of early years sheds light on these critical first five years when our development is most dramatic and the foundations of many of our later successes and challenges are laid.

General awareness that the brain develops fastest during the first five years of life is strong (87%), but only two-thirds of parents (64%) report that the most rapid development happens during the first two years of life, in spite of scientific evidence demonstrating that this is the most critical time of all.  In the first 12 months alone the size of a child’s brain increases by an average 101% and most of our brain is developed before we can talk. 

Our understanding of the process of development matters because it informs our actions. Not realising how much is going on developmentally in the brain of a 0-2 year old means that parents may underestimate how much of an impact they can have by interacting with their baby. The research finds that ‘a key way in which parents judge brain development is by observing visible changes in their child’s behaviour’, but this means that parents are unaware of the enormous amount of development going on in their child’s head before those changes become visible. Many of the ‘signs’ of development mentioned by parents (such as talking and walking), are in fact the results of brain development, but it’s unfortunately ‘only once children had reached these development milestones, that some parents felt they were able to influence their child’s development’. It’s important that parents realise how fast the brain is growing before children can walk and talk – and what they can do to support that brain development.

Another striking finding is that the long-term impact the experiences of these early years has on later life chances  – why these early experiences matter so much – is not widely understood. Previous studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between development by 22 months and educational attainment at 26 years and there is evidence that 40% of the socio-economic attainment gap at age 16 is already present at age five. Yet the research tells us that 7 in 10 parents (69%) of under-5s don’t realise how critical the first five years are for later life chances. 

How far the responsibility of wider society stretches is a moot point. Only 20% of parents of 0-5-year-olds think that they should be mainly responsible for their children’s reading and writing skills, compared with nearly half of parents (46%) who think they alone are responsible for the development of their children’s social skills. Meanwhile, as many as a fifth (20%) of parents of 0-5s think that society at large should bear most responsibility for children’s lifelong health and happiness – and that parents have a lesser role in shouldering this burden. This suggests that a significant minority of parents are underestimating the impact that their interaction with their young children has, and the importance of encouraging their child’s development before they reach school age.

A recent YouGov(1) survey showed almost half of the children in the UK are starting school without the basic skills needed to learn. This points to a discrepancy between parent and teacher expectations and if parents are unclear of the age-related expectations for their children, it’s teachers who have to bridge the development gap.  

We believe every child is born curious with the potential to grow up to be happy, healthy adults.  And we believe all parents want to give their children the best start in life that they can. But right now, it’s clear that too many parents are struggling. And so, too many children are missing out.  This large-scale, demographically balanced, important research project provides a baseline for our understanding of the public’s views and understanding of the crucial early years. How we respond to its key messages as we emerge from the rigours of the Covid pandemic should inform families’ capacity to build solid foundations, ensuring no child’s future has to be limited by the circumstances of their birth.