There are a number of significant features in the lives of today’s generation of under fives, a new Nuffield Foundation evidence review has found, highlighting the extent of changes to family life over the last 20 years and highlights how these changes are experienced unequally across the population.
While the findings relate specifically to the UK, the similarities between the Australian experience make the findings of value to our context also.
As the first generation to have a majority of the population spending a large part of their childhood engaged in formal education and care settings, as a result of dual parental employment, today’s youngest children are also more likely to have older parents, fewer siblings and a greater chance of experiencing a variety of family relationships if parents separate and re-partner.
Parental income and level of education play a large part in shaping early childhood experience, authors said,and this is exacerbated as the current generation faces an uncertain start in life as a result of COVID-19.
How are the lives of families with young children changing?, released late last week, drew on over 130 sources to reach its findings and to illustrate how family context and social and economic factors are combining to create a new environment for early childhood that is “marked by inequality and insufficiently understood.”
Although the changes to family formation and structure have changed over the past 20 years, when people have children, and how many children they have, is increasingly linked to their level of income and education.
The proportion of families with cohabiting parents, and ‘blended’ families has increased, although most children (61 per cent) still spend their early childhood in families with married parents.
Those families who live together without formalising their relationship through marriage are more likely to separate than those who do marry, but researchers argue this is because people in more stable relationships are more likely to get married rather than marriage in itself conferring relationship stability.
The income and education level of parents are more important for children’s outcomes than whether parents are lone, married, cohabiting or separated, they added.
Lone or single parent families represent around 20 per cent of family groups, and, on average, a mothers’ level of education is a strong predictor of the age at which they have children, and the number of children they have.
In the UK, where the study was conducted, differences in family size by parental education level have widened over time; those with a higher level of formal education are having fewer children at an older age than those with lower levels of formal education.
The quality of relationships between parents and children and the level of conflict is an important factor in children’s outcomes and well-being. The presence of persistent, hostile and unresolved conflict has a detrimental impact on childhood well-being and outcomes regardless of family structure.
Mothers still carry out far more childcare than men, in the UK. Prior to COVID-19, men were only doing half an hour a week more childcare of pre-school children than they were twenty years ago, but the impact of COVID-19 has led to an increase in the amount of time fathers are spending with their young children.
While the number of and proportion of young children in formal early childhood education and care has increased steadily and the majority of children under five now spend a large part of their childhoods in such settings. This reflects increases in state-funded care – the number of free entitlement hours for three- and four-year-olds has almost doubled between 2003 and 2019. However, the most disadvantaged families are least likely to take up their state-funded entitlements to early education and childcare, as are children who speak English as an additional language.
COVID-19 is increasing financial insecurity and poses a risk to children’s early education and development but is also enabling fathers to spend more time with their children.
The review also found that it is not possible to fully understand trends and patterns in family life because of inadequate data collection, particularly in relation to separated families, blended families and non-resident parents (usually but not always fathers). As a result, policy resources and services are not meeting the needs of young children in different kinds of families. This needs to be addressed in order to design and implement policy that will better support children, particularly those most in need.
Review author, and Early Childhood Lead at the Nuffield Foundation, Carey Oppenheim said that being a small child today “is a strikingly different experience to a generation ago,” as changes in family life and socio-economic circumstances intertwine to shape children’s experiences and their outcomes.
“These changes are fundamental – impacting where children are looked after and by whom and how they are spending their time. The early years are such an important stage of life that it is essential we understand fully what has changed, the inequalities between families and what we should be doing to enhance the well-being and life chances of young children over and above the confines of early years policy.”