Monday, 1 January 2007

0-5 How Small Children Make a Big Difference

Provocation Series, Volume 3, Number 1
Alan Sinclair, Jan 2007

The Work Foundation

Below is the introduction to this excellent paper. If you want to read the full paper (well worth it) The Work Foundation have asked us to direct you to their site to download the pdf. To do this Click here.

This paper will demonstrate how vital the early years are to good economics, social mobility, quality of life, and consequently, government plans for modernisation and reform. It explores each of these in turn, and shows why parenting and early-year enrichment make such a big difference.

All Roads Lead to Early Years
There is a direct link between the experiences of early childhood and subsequent adulthood. And, what happens in the very earliest years of life makes the biggest difference. Brain development is most rapid in the months before birth and up to age five. If that is disrupted by drugs, alcohol, smoking, poor diet or stress then today’s baby becomes tomorrow’s disadvantaged child.

Once born, a child needs someone to love them and to respond to their needs. Even in the seemingly ‘best’ homes, parents worry about whether they are ‘doing it right’. How much more difficult must it be for teenage single parents with multiple burdens? Research shows that support and education in parenting plus well-delivered, enriched day care, pay dividends to the family, the child and society.

If we do not engage with struggling parents and parents to be then, as night follows day, we know that their children will grow into the least healthy adults who are badly educated, cause their neighbours and the police most problems, and will be unemployed and on welfare benefits. In turn they will have children early and repeat the bad parenting. Current practice is to more or less grudgingly pick up the costs through a miscellany of public services from social work to the courts and prisons, hospitals and Jobcentre Plus.

Schools and teachers are important but our parents, and what happens before we reach school, are more significant. It is estimated that by the age of three, 50% of our language is in place. At five, it’s 85%. Language is either there or missing by the time a child starts primary school. And once a child starts primary school, they are only there for 15% of their time. (1)

What the theory and practical studies of children’s early years show is that there is an alternative. By applying a systematic approach and focusing on root causes rather than symptoms, parents can provide suffi ciently loving homes for children to have better lives. But this presents a challenge to central and local government in deciding where and how money is spent.

There is a very big prize for getting this right. Morally, of course, it is right. It accords with principles of equal opportunity. And, on a practical level, early engagement pays a very high rate of return. The dividend is 12-16% per year for every £1 of investment - a payback of four or five times the original investment by the time the young person reaches their early twenties and the gains continue to flow throughout their life.

Early year Investment economically delivers efficiency and equity. It promotes economic growth by creating a more able workforce and reduces costs borne by the criminal justice, health and welfare system. For government of all shades, the challenge now is how, through early years investment, to modernise and reform the public sector. Efficiency in dealing with hospital waiting lists or the number of criminals locked up has blinded us to effectiveness in reducing the number of obese children or the number of youths prone to violent or disruptive behaviour.

We insist on more formal education and training to drive a car than to be a parent. But better parenting is not just for the ‘unfortunate’ and the ‘feckless’. More affluent homes play with fire in outsourcing their babies too early and for too long. A culture of work and status denies parents the space to be with their children. Italian holiday guidebooks might say how enticing the UK is as a place to take children but our attitudes to children need a makeover.

Getting ‘early years’ right benefits the whole of society. Through economic research, psychology, biology and neuroscience, the answers come out the same: treat what happens in the first years as gold. What is massively encouraging is that improving what we do in early years is already happening but only on a small scale and in disparate places.

In the UK, we think that young children are the preserve of their mothers. The ‘early years’, we unquestioningly assume, are about children and mothers playing - not that important, and certainly not something that real men should spend much time on. Our most dangerous assumptions are the ones we do not know we are making.

This explains why, despite our best intentions, we have got it so wrong.

1. Wishart R, Herald, 13 June 2006

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