The importance of an early start

The first 1000 days of life, from conception to age two, is a critical phase of a child’s development. The greatest opportunities to make a real and tangible difference to children’s outcomes occur when they are very young too. Growing up experiencing material hardship such as food insecurity and poor-quality housing can have a lifelong impact on health and development. Babies born into poverty are more likely to have a low birth weight and by the age of three, poorer children are on average nine months behind in development terms than their wealthier peers.

All recent governments have focussed on early years policy with twin objectives of giving children a better start in life whilst supporting and increasing the number of working families. Total spending on the early years has risen significantly over the last three decades according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and investment in the expansion of 30 hours ‘free’ childcare (including for households earning up to £199,000 a year) is set to reach £6 billion per year in 2020. Despite this level of investment, there are still concerns in the childcare sector about underfunding, some providers are closing or being forced to ask parents to pay for meals, nappies and trips to meet shortfalls and concerns remain about the quality of provision.

This year, I was pleased to see multiple select committees focus their attention on the early years, reports from the health and social care, science and technology and education select committees each reinforced the need for a clear policy direction via the development of a national strategy.

What would I like to see in terms of future early years policy? Above all else, improving the life chances of children must be at the heart of all policy decisions. The need to think and act differently in order to mitigate against the risks of longer term challenges and rising inequalities is more pressing than ever. We must target available funding towards the most socially and economically disadvantaged in order to affect generational change, investing in the early years workforce is a must too.

The benefits of getting it right during the early stages of a child’s life are immeasurable. Unless we invest properly in parenting and early years education whilst also addressing the root causes of poverty, we will face huge social, financial and human costs. Good quality, reliable child care is part, but no means the only component of a plan.

Rachel Dickinson is Executive Director People at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and ADCS President 2019/20.

This column was first published on the MJ website on 11 December. | Link

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