If the measure of a nation's commitment to fairness is giving every child a chance to realise their potential through education, we are a failing nation. We speak the language of equal opportunity. But we stack the cards against our most disadvantaged kids, setting them up to fail long before they start school. The time has come to level the playing field.
Every parent wants their child to get a good start in life. Most look at their toddlers and see a future of unlimited possibilities. What they don't see are the forces skewing opportunity towards kids who drew the lottery ticket of being born to wealthier, better-educated parents.
Developments in neuroscience have turned the spotlight on those forces.
Behind that gurgling, babbling, crawling and toddling bundle of perpetual motion that is every 0 to 5-year-old, there is a hive of cognitive development. These are the crucial years for brain development. Up to 1,000 synapses - neural pathways for transmitting language, spatial awareness and behavioural responses - are forming every second. Forget artificial intelligence: this is the knowledge revolution.
As the father of two small children, I'm blessed with a chance to witness that revolution up close. Part of my evenings, way past bed-time, is spent reading over and over again about the travails and triumphs of Thomas the Tank Engine in a desperate struggle not to fall asleep before my three-year- old, who is learning at a rate of knots I can only dream about.
Nurturing kids' brains during the formative years expands their opportunities. Unfortunately, poverty, stress and parental anxiety have the opposite effect, silently eroding a child's cognitive development.
The consequences are evident before children make the transition from crawling to toddling. By the age of 3, those from the poorest 20% of homes are 10 months behind those from the richest households. By the age of 5, that gap has almost doubled. Half the country's most deprived children start school without the right language skills for their age. And when kids fall behind, they stay behind.
Inequality in early-years learning and language development is at the heart of some of our gravest national ailments. It is implicated in England's levels of social mobility, which are among the lowest in the industrialised world. It is at the centre of the educational disparities that slam the doors to higher education in the face of the poor. And in adulthood, it resurfaces in lower earnings.
The good news is that disparities in early childhood can be narrowed. Enabling parents to create an environment conducive to their children's development is critical. We can work with new parents to help them understand the importance of reading and play - and those living in poverty can be supported.
Beyond the home, high quality childcare is a tried, tested antidote to inequality in early childhood. It has the potential to act as a great leveller. Children who benefit from high quality childcare, delivered by skilled and caring staff, gain around three months in language and literacy skills. They are also around 20% more likely to get five A*-C GCEs. And they carry that educational advantage into the world of work, securing higher wages.
The operative words for unlocking these benefits are 'high quality'. As we document in a Save the Children report launched today, there is a lot more to do in provision for early childhood. We estimate that some 280,000 3 to 4-year-olds are attending private, independent or voluntary child care settings without a qualified early years teacher to work with them. The new research shows that children who have been through high quality nursery provision start school with a three- month advantage over those who have not had a qualified early years teacher. Yet children are missing out on this crucial support up and down the country.
The lottery of early childhood care mirrors the lottery of birth itself. Children living in some parts of the country fare better than others.
Coverage of qualified early years teachers ranges from 16% in the areas with the lowest levels of provision to 86% in those with the highest. The West Midlands is particularly badly served. And yes, you guessed it, it is the areas with the highest levels of child deprivation that are getting left furthest behind.
This problem is getting worse as the number of people applying to train as early years teachers is falling sharply, and the dangers of this trajectory are self-evident. That is why Save the Children is calling for £65m of investment for nurseries in some of the most deprived parts of the country to link children to the skilled teachers who could transform their life chances.
The consequences of under-investment are significant. Leaving aside the ethical imperative to combat the unfairness that destroys so much talent, research shows high quality childcare can lead to a benefit to the exchequer of £5,000 for every individual.
All of which leaves me with one overwhelming question.
Today, our national conversation on education is dominated by whether or not to return to grammar school provision. Whatever your take on the issue, this has to be the ultimate diversion. The early years foundations of our education system are broken. Fixing them will dwarf the contested benefits of grammar school education for a small minority - and it will move us towards a society that is fairer, more socially mobile and less destructive of opportunity.Suggest a correction