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Agenda: why the first 1001 days of life deal far too many children a bad hand

The educational attainment gap between wealthy and poor children is neither a secret nor a surprise.

New evidence from Save the Children confirms that poverty and inequality remain dreadfully high, and on the rise, throughout the UK.

Our children, schools and economy need, but still do not have, the relative equality that is the hallmark of Europe's most successful societies.

The recent Joseph Rowntree/Strathclyde University report, Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education, offers a strong analysis and sensible recommendations.

But one major piece of the puzzle is missing. The report says the achievement gap in children's cognitive development begins at pre-school age. The gap is evident at pre-school but the fastest development begins pre-birth and continues during infancy. As Professor Michael Marmot concludes: "The foundations for virtually every aspect of human development ... are laid in early childhood. What happens during these early years [beginning in the womb] has lifelong effects."

The first 1001 days of life are also the first 1001 days of learning. Sadly, these are still the days, months and years during which the fewest and least fair investments in child wellbeing are made across Scotland and the UK. Preventing the attainment gap from opening in the first place is as important as closing it later. In theory, everyone is in favour of prevention.

Rhetorical support for prevention has not yet corrected the investment imbalance. What schools can do to close the attainment gap should be complemented by reducing inequality from pre-birth to pre-school. This means taking robust action to stem the rising tide of babies and toddlers who will be the next wave of children already far behind when they start school.

The past two decades have witnessed an explosion in scientific understanding and solid evidence about infant brain development and healthy child development. What happens (or fails to happen) from conception to age two significantly shapes the nature and quality of each child's health, education, behaviour and life chances.

Secure, loving relationships between babies and their parents or carers; early communication skills; and protection from abuse, neglect and domestic violence all affect children's later success in school and in life. WAVE Trust summarised this evidence, and its practical implications for action, in its 2013 Age of Opportunity report.

It is never too late to improve the lives and learning of children and young people. It is also never too early. Much child development occurs long before the first day of school.

Later interventions can make a major difference but these become increasingly difficult and expensive, as children grow older.

Eliminating poverty and inequality are the biggest, long-term priorities that must be addressed with renewed vigour. Warnings from Scotland's Child Poverty Action Group and numerous charities should no longer be ignored. Just as poverty increases the chances of a bad start in life, so, too, being "dealt a bad hand" as a baby increases the likelihood of adult poverty. Improving the quality of the first 1001 days of life is of paramount importance in its own right, as well as contributing to breaking the intergenerational cycle of deprivation. Much good work is already underway.

The remarkable coalition behind Putting the Baby IN the Bath Water advocated the new prevention-focused, pre-birth to pre-school duties for public bodies in Scotland's Children and Young People Act. These very welcome efforts have great potential but they are not major accomplishments yet.

To enhance the attainment of Scotland's children and decrease the harmful effects of poverty, "minding the gap" is a good first step. "Closing the gap" is a call to action that must be heeded. "Preventing the gap" remains the missing piece that deserves to become a top Scottish priority.

Dr Sher is Scotland director of WAVE Trust

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