1. EARLY YEARS: THE CASE FOR ACTION
Early years policy will contribute strongly to a range of outcomes and also to quality of life in early childhood.
Effective approaches to early years and early intervention policy will contribute strongly to promoting and upholding children's rights as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child ( UNCRC) and indeed those rights must underpin all policy for children.
As set out in the Government Economic Strategy, 2 of the key elements in delivering an economically successful Scotland are learning skills and wellbeing, and equity. Scotland's first Skills Strategy, Skills for Scotland, highlights that the early years of a child's life lay the foundations of skills for learning, life and work and have a major bearing on wider outcomes including employment. The Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has set out an economic case that shows the rate of economic return on early years investment is significantly higher than for any other stage in the education system.
The recent OECD review of quality and equity of schooling highlights the huge influence of social circumstances on educational attainment in Scotland. Other UK research highlights that the home learning environment in the early years is the largest factor in attainment and achievement at age 10, bigger even than the effect of pre-school and primary school. The Millennium Cohort Study provided evidence of significant inequalities in development at age 3 that can persist throughout people's lives. Supporting parents to provide a stimulating and supportive home environment, particularly in the early years, combined with high quality pre-school and school education is therefore a key element in delivering solidarity and cohesion and improving participation and productivity within the Scottish economy.
Scotland's Chief Medical Officer set out the evidence of the connection between early years and a range of physical and mental health outcomes in his 2006 Annual Report. He particularly emphasised the importance of pregnancy and parenting in defining health outcomes. Parents' interaction with children in the first years of life is critical in developing relationships and laying the foundations for positive physical and mental health development. We know that high-risk behaviour such as substance misuse, smoking and poor diet during pregnancy and the early years can have a serious impact on a child's health, development and outcomes. Effective engagement with parents is an important first step in addressing problems, yet those parents most in need are often the least likely to access services.
From the child's perspective, there is evidence that exposure to high levels of parental stress, neglect and abuse can have a severe effect on brain development. There are clear gaps between the development of children whose parents face such stresses and those being brought up in less stressful households. These gaps continue through life. At age 3, children at higher risk of poor outcomes can be identified on the basis of their chaotic home circumstances, their emotional behaviour, their negativity and poor development. These children face many risks and improving early years support is key to improving child protection. By the time such children reach adulthood, these children are more likely to have poor health outcomes, be unemployed, have criminal convictions, have substance misuse problems and have experienced teenage pregnancy. Improving the early years experiences of these children is therefore a central element of our strategy for regenerating communities, reducing crime, tackling substance misuse and improving employability. It will also help us to break the repeating cycle of poor outcomes often associated with teenage pregnancy.
As well as the lost childhoods and the damage to children, families and communities, the financial costs of failure are enormous. For example, the annual costs of providing intensive secure care for a teenager can be in excess of £200,000 per annum. The costs of impaired health, lack of employment and criminality throughout life could be many times that. There is evidence of a positive economic return from early years investment, i.e. spending on programmes that are targeted, high quality and based on an effective methodology can save more than they cost over a number of years. The studies which show a positive rate of return rely on effective targeting of programmes and resources, implying a need for better risk assessment and matching of resources to need within universal services, as well as the availability of more targeted services where needed.
Early years investment is not a magic bullet. There is no single programme or approach that can deliver the improved outcomes we seek. Instead, it will take a concerted and long-term effort across a range of policies and services to achieve a transformation in outcomes. The scale of the changes which will be required to bring about these improvements is massive and complex. Service planners and providers may have to take difficult decisions, for example in respect of resource allocation, to shift the focus from crisis management to prevention, early identification and early intervention, whilst realistically recognising that crisis management will still be needed.
There is life beyond early years and some children and families will need long-term support throughout childhood and beyond. We can, however, hope to reduce the numbers of such families through supporting the capacity of children and parents to secure positive outcomes for themselves to the point where it can be self-sustaining within the universal services that are available and by building community capacity so that the wider community is empowered to provide a supportive environment for children and families.