Education: why the first days of life are the most important of all

4 Jun 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Jun 2021

Picture: Jill Suave, Unsplash

If we are to fix educational underachievement in Northern Ireland we are going to have to spend £49.7 million extra every year on children before they even get to school.

That is one of the seven findings of the A Fair Start report which was published earlier this week. The Early Years investment accounts for more than two thirds of the eventual £73.1 million per annum total that the panel calculates will be needed to  make “a significant, long-lasting impact on children’s learning now and for the foreseeable future.”

The report was commissioned by Education Minister Peter Weir to examine educational underachievement, propose an action plan to reduce it and estimate the costs of what needs to be done.

It cites research by US Professor James Heckman, a leading expert on the economics of human development. Heckman has demonstrated that early childhood development directly influences economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society. Adverse early environments create deficits in skills and abilities that drive down productivity and increase social costs—thereby adding to financial deficits borne by the public.

What’s important are the so-called “soft skills” – attentiveness, persistence, working with others – and Heckman and others have shown that disadvantaged families are least likely to have the economic and social resources to provide the early developmental stimulation required. Hence the need to provide resources.

According to Heckman: “The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Starting at age three or four is too little too late … Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.”

Closer to home a 2018 analysis from the Early Intervention Foundation quoted in the report found that Northern Ireland spends a total of £536 million per year on late interventions.

The first 1,000 days of life are regarded as the most important for childhood development. This clearly takes us out of the classroom, even out of pre-school and into the home – and puts a focus on how we support parents to help their children get the very best possible start in life from the moment of birth.

The report frames the challenge like this: “Parents and families will also be supported in understanding the development stages of their child, especially in relation to the early language and motor skills required to give every child greater equality of opportunity and in so doing, facilitating their ability to start school better prepared to learn.”

Clearly this implies a very close relationship between the Department of Health and Education with the highest possible levels of co-ordination. In practice it will mean that health visitors and community midwives will be critical in providing early support, education and sign-posting to help parents nurture their children.

The report also wants to see both the pay and qualifications of the Early Years workforce “reflect the significance of the age group they are working with.”

The challenge for them is significant. Research shows that that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are developmentally nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds by age three. This gap accelerates. By the age of five there’s a 19 month difference in school readiness between the most and least advantaged children. Closing that gap would be a considerable achievement and a great contribution to levelling the school playing field.

But support for families, and indeed communities needs to be continuous. The report states: “We want a seamless journey from pregnancy to pre-school, school and beyond, where every child is provided with the appropriate level of support needed in a timely and appropriate manner in order to realise their potential.”

It therefore proposes a Reducing Educational Disadvantage programme – this would, bring what it calls a  ‘whole community approach to education’ where the greatest concentration of effort would be brought to bear on those areas with the greatest concentration of underachievement. This would involve partnering with the voluntary and community sector.

During their consultations in preparing the report the panel the cause of educational underachievement most cited was: “lack of family/parent support/lack of role models” and the most favoured interventions were “greater family engagement” and “raising aspirations.”

This is perhaps why the report is adamant that schools need to make parent/family engagement part of their development plans and why they should promote the importance of education to future success.

A key point is that schools alone cannot overcome the impact of social and educational disadvantage. They need to work with communities by which is meant all those who are relevant to and impact on youngsters (families, youth groups, statutory organisations etc) and also those places where disadvantage is the greatest.

Currently schools are able to access the Targeting Social Need (TSN) fund which is available to help them support children from low socio-economic backgrounds. However because it is not mandatory for them to report how it is spent there is no way of measuring its effectiveness or even if the money is spent for the purpose intended. The report states that in the future TSN reporting should be compulsory for all schools.

To do well in school children need to be ready and eager to learn.  

The Education department has a useful definition of what constitutes good emotional health:  “A state of wellbeing that allows children to develop and become aware of their own unique personality, to build their own identity, to fulfil their own potential, to cope with the challenges of growing up; to feel loved, secure and accepted as unique individuals and to be able to be happy, play, learn and to participate and contribute to family and community”.

Surveys consistently show that children want support with their emotional health and the report states that those schools that prioritise  wellbeing are seeing a “highly significant, positive impact on reported levels of motivation, mental health and wellbeing, social skills, and physical health and wellbeing.”

This area will need further work because of the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of school children.

A recent study has demonstrated that children’s wellbeing has deteriorated over the course of this difficult period. It found a majority of parents/carers felt that the 2021 lockdown/school closures had resulted in their children’s mental health and wellbeing becoming ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ than the earlier lockdown (51% in 2021 vs 31% in 2020). While 20% of parents in 2020 felt that their child’s mental health had become ‘better’ or ‘much better’, by 2021 this figure had fallen to just 7%.

Unsurprisingly reported outcomes were worse for those children from low-income homes.

A Fair Start is a measured and thoroughly researched report. Its work on educational underachievement is further evidence of the need for joined-up government. Making the difference required goes way beyond what the Department of Education can hope to achieve on its own. If we want a healthier, better educated population, a well-qualified workforce and a successful economy we need to join up all the dots.



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