Pity the poor children of the cuts

25 Mar 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Happier times ... Minister O'Dowd at a Bookstart event before the programme was cut

We could all end up paying a very high price for cuts to Early Years services, Scope explores the implications.

When Education Minister John O’Dowd announced cuts of £97 million to his budget all the banner headlines concerned the impact on schools.

This is pretty much as you would expect given that 500 school teachers  and 1,000 support staff are going to be made redundant as a result.

But in the inveitable furore one aspect of his announcement has gone pretty much unreported, and yet the impact will be severe for many of the most disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland.

Minister O’Dowd has ended both  £1.7 Million Early Years Fund and the £254,000 Bookstart programme.

The Eary Years Fund was established in 2004 in order to continue early childhood services in areas of greatest need which until then had been funded by the Peace II European programme. It is administered by Early Years, the organisation for young children.

Bookstart, which is run by the Booktrust has been going very successfully in Northern Ireland for 10 years. Over that period parents of every child are handed a book pack by their health visitor soon after birth and others are given out to pre-school children. All together 50,000 packs were given out last year. The idea is to encourage parents to read more to their children and embed a love of books and reading at the earliest stage possible.

Both schemes build on a considerable body of international research that demonstrates the importance of early intervention.

Right across the world governments are recognising that investments in early childhood programmes are much more cost effective, and indeed are much more likely to work than those made later in life. This is because skills learned early in life set a pattern that can last a lifetime.

Taking Bookstart as an example: identical schemes now run in 24 countries and the closure of this fund means that Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK which does not have a scheme.

Experts in a variety of different fields report that many major economic problems such as crime, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school and poor mental and physical health can be traced back to low levels of skill and ability.

This means that if a child is not motivated and stimulated to learn and engage early in life, they are more likely to fail in social and economic life as an adult. It also means that the longer we wait before intervening the more that will cost. This process begins before the child even gets to school, again there is a lot of research to back this up: ability gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children open up very early in life so the sooner we intervene, the better the chance is of closing that gap.

Add all this up and it has been calculated that for every £1 invested in children in early years, £17 is saved in remedial interventions later on. The Booktrust claims an even higher figure for its work on literacy: £25 savings for every £1.

There are not too many businesses out there that can deliver that kind of return on investment.

Sadly, when it comes to cuts it is not the best investments that are always protected. We see that all the time. Minister O’Dowd has been a strong supporter of early years’ programmes. He absolutely gets what is at stake. He often speaks about the importance of early years work. And he will be all too aware of that as his own party is circling the wagons to protect the vulnerable from the impact of Welfare Reform, his own department is about to cause considerable suffering to those very same people. It’s a bitter irony.

Let’s briefly look at the impact in the case of the Early Years Fund.  Local services currently supported by the Early Years Fund will be lost in 153 communities in the most disadvantaged parts of Northern Ireland. This in turn will lead to 2,500 early childhood places being lost. Of these 620 are for children with special needs and 250 places are for children who do not have English as their first language.

Early Years calculates that this will also translate into a loss of support for around 1,800 single parent families. Scope calculates that further on down the line this “saving” will cost taxpayers an additional £28.9 Million in pure financial terms. It will also lead to human misery and hardship which is impossible to measure. Pity the children of the cuts.

Spare a thought for the parents too. What would you do if you were a single parent or a working couple on low wages and discovered there was no longer a child care place for your offspring? How would you manage to keep your job or find one if you are unemployed?

Everywhere you look, regardless of the political intent of those having to make tough decisions, it is those who can least afford it who are having to pay a very high price for an economic catastrophe which was not of their making. There has to be a better, fairer way.

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