11th February 2016

Early years are at the heart of life chances

By Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England

In the five years since the Rt Hon Frank Field, MP’s report – The Foundation Years – focused on the interventions and action needed to prevent poor children from becoming poor adults, consensus has grown that we need to start in the early years.

Children’s earliest experiences define their outcomes in childhood and into adult life and those who fall behind before school often struggle to catch up.  So, if we are looking to change the odds for the most disadvantaged children and improve their life chances, then we must focus on their early years.

The 1001 days group has been making powerful arguments about the importance of early support for parents and children from conception to two and a recent parliamentary event I held highlighted the growing momentum of support for intervening early to overcome inequalities and break the cycle of disadvantage.

Last year, I argued for a renewed focus on reducing poverty for pre-school children and their families with a move to provide support through an early years guarantee. Just two months ago, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission added their voice to the call for a more coherent, joined up approach in the early years, recommending a ‘one nation early years system’ with the scale and ambition to reduce poverty in the early years.

The recent Prime Minister’s speech on life chances, suggests that he agrees.  ‘When neuroscience shows us the pivotal importance of the first few years of life in determining the adults we become, we must think much more radically about improving family life and the early years,’ he said.

I believe that there is a unique opportunity to build on the significant national investment already being made in the early years to combine the effects of national investment in health, early education and early years across Government into a national early years programme that could be transformational.

So what would a more radical approach look like?

A number of local approaches are showing signs of some success. The Early Intervention Foundation is working with early intervention areas who are developing new models of integrated practice with health and education from conception to school. The Big Lottery ‘Better Start’ programmes show promise of similarly robust levels of integration around services for conception to three years of age. Many of these areas are innovating through their Children’s Centres – building out into hubs and bringing in wider support around employment, housing, family support, and safeguarding. With new alignments between public health and authorities, this must represent a major opportunity to bring new focus.

It could be argued that the potential to offer a guarantee of support to the most vulnerable children from conception to school is almost in place in some of those areas where new models are coming into place and beginning to have success.

To deliver in every area, some key building blocks will need to be in place:

Early and coherent identification

Health Visitors and Midwives will already identify and provide additional support to children and parents who are at greater risk of vulnerability as a central focus of the Healthy Child Programme. New checks during the second year strengthen the ability to follow up early assessments with the Early Years Foundation Stage providing a framework for early years workers to identify need and improve outcomes.

The new phase of the Troubled Families programme and the provision of childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds offers an opportunity to better assess the needs of parents of disadvantaged young children. The work of child protection around the most vulnerable children will be taking place alongside these programmes and Family Nurse Partnerships will also offer specialised support for some.

There is an opportunity to build coherence across these programmes to use a common approach to identify and assess need to create and respond to a common understanding of children’s needs in the early years.

A coherent response

Whilst we are investing significant resources in the early years, there is no common framework. This means that different professional groups and programmes will have different priorities, different professional cultures and approaches and different measurements of success.  A new framework would bring together support for children in the early years and their families with a common understanding of need and a common set of priorities and measurements to improve the outcomes. Identifying clear indicators of successful outcomes for children in the early years is an essential next step.

Coherent funding

As a nation, we invest significant amounts in the early years through health, education, childcare and child protection programmes.  The Troubled Families programme, Family Nurse Partnerships and the new Early Years Pupil Premium also provide important support.

Examining funding for the early years would enable us to identify opportunities to align funds towards the need of the whole child in a coherent way.  There should be consideration given to pooling budgets and providing personal budgets. A commitment to a new focus with investment for vulnerable children in the early years could be the first step in the transition to a new guarantee of support for all children in the early years. Such innovative decisions about funding children in their early years could be devolved from Central Government putting the life chances of children at the heart of planned renewal of the most disadvantaged estates.

The case for placing every child’s early years at the heart of the life chances strategy is a strong one. For the one million children born with the odds stacked against them over the next five years, it is a necessity.

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