As local authorities take on responsibility for public health services for young children, the National Children's Bureau's Head of Policy, Zoe Renton, discusses our new report which reveals that the North-South divide continues to have an impact on the life chances of children growing up above a certain latitude.
Using data collected by Public Health England, Poor Beginnings finds that simply by growing up in a certain part of the country, a young child is more likely to suffer from obesity, tooth decay, injury and poor development in the early years. A five-year-old growing up in Leicester, for example, is five times more likely to have tooth decay than a child of the same age in West Sussex. A child starting school in Barking and Dagenham in London is two and half times more likely to be obese than a pupil of the same age in Richmond upon Thames, just on the other side of the capital.
These experiences of poor health will not only pose problems for children in their early years, but will have implications for the rest of their lives.
But it is the gap between the North and South of the country that stands out. In the North West, thousands fewer children would suffer poor health in the first five years of their life if the region had the same outcomes as the South East. There would be, for example, 11,000 fewer children suffering from tooth decay, and 5,500 more children reaching the right level of personal and social development to help them prepare for learning and school life.
The link between deprivation and the health of young children is also clear. Those in the 30 most deprived local authorities are more likely to be obese, have tooth decay and suffer injuries, and less likely to reach a good level of development than those in the 30 least deprived areas.
However this pattern is not inevitable. There are areas that buck the trend, where young children are doing as well as or better than the national average despite growing up in difficult social and economic circumstances – like Salford with average obesity rates or South Tyneside with low levels of tooth decay.
Disrupting these regional and socio-economic trends will take strong political resolve, as well as strong leadership and an ambitious cross-government national strategy for improving the health and development of all young children. We also need to understand and respond to those inequalities that are less easy to explain – and learn from areas where children are doing better despite high levels of deprivation.
From October, the onus will be on local authorities to support public health services for young children. However, in light of persistent regional variations and the continuing link between poverty and health, now is the time to make reducing the health gap between young children growing up in different parts of the country a new national mission.