The rhyme and reason for early intervention

by Peter Watt

We need to intervene much earlier in a child’s life if we are to reverse the impact of poor parenting. This is the key message set out in Graham Allen MP’s recent report Early intervention: the next steps. It finds that:

“babies are born with 25 per cent of their brains developed, and there is then a rapid period of development so that by the age of 3 their brains are 80 per cent developed. In that period, neglect, the wrong type of parenting and other adverse experiences can have a profound effect on how children are emotionally ‘wired’. This will deeply influence their future responses to events and their ability to empathise with other people”.

And the report makes clear the consequences of poor parenting:

  • A child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years.
  • Some 54 per cent of the incidence of depression in women and 58 per cent of suicide attempts by women have been attributed to adverse childhood experiences, according to a study in the US.
  • An authoritative study of boys assessed by nurses at age 3 as being ‘at risk’ found that they had two and a half times as many criminal convictions as the group deemed not to be at risk at age 21. Moreover, in the at-risk group, 55 per cent of the convictions were for violent offences, compared to 18 per cent for those who were deemed not to be at risk.

The report, commissioned and welcomed by the government, calls for cross-party acceptance of the benefits of early intervention. It also asks all parties to accept that late intervention is expensive and ineffective. A further report setting out funding options is promised in the summer.

The day before the Allen report was launched, I was at our local library with our two year old. We were taking part in rhyme time, a national programme of weekly interactive singing for parents and their under fives. My daughter had been before with her mum on many occasions, but this was my first foray. I was actually a bit intimidated and was worried about making a fool of myself. I needn’t have worried as she knew exactly what she was doing and helped me through. I really enjoyed it. There were about thirty mums, and a couple of dads. For half an hour we sang and did accompanying actions to familiar rhymes like The grand old duke of York, Dingle dangle scarecrow and, my particular favourite, Five little ducklings. The audience was mixed with teenage mums to grandparents. And also mixed in that there were middle-class and working-class parents – it certainly wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the local chattering classes.

The children loved the singing – led by a librarian – the parental attention and the nurturing. The one-to-one time with their parent is a really important part of promoting healthy attachment – a key feature of their emotional development.  Afterwards, there was time to chat to other rhyme timers and clearly many of the regulars spent the time catching up and socialising. For some, it was an opportunity for company and support – and it cost nothing. However, being slightly intimidated by the gender balance, I have to be honest that my two year old and I sneaked off quite quickly.

Rhyme time is supported by bookstart, the national charity partly funded partly by the department of education and partly by the private sector in the book selling and publishing world. It also gives free books to pre-school age children as a way of kick-starting an enjoyment of books.

The Bookstart website describes it as a “national programme that encourages all parents and carers to enjoy books with their children from as early an age as possible”.  You may remember the furore recently over their funding. In December, the government announced that it was cutting £13 million of government funding, and then announced a month later that it wasn’t.

Anyway, reflecting on my time singing rhymes and the implications of the Allen report got me thinking.

Perhaps, with hindsight, programmes like sure start should have focused more on improving parenting skills as well as targeting areas of deprivation. Perhaps the last government spent too much on buildings and equipment and not enough on evaluating what programmes worked. Buildings are important – and there was certainly a backlog of dilapidation – but buildings do not deliver good parenting skills.

Yet the current government’s approach to deficit reduction is chaotic. It inevitably leads to unforeseen consequences. On the one hand they have welcomed the Allen report, which demonstrates the importance of good parenting in the first few years of a child’s life. And on the other, for the sake of £13 million, they were scrapping a scheme that promotes good parenting of under fives.

The good news is that improving a child’s life chances need not necessarily cost huge amounts of money. I am sure that the report will be essential reading for Andy Burnham and the shadow education team. I also hope that the government chooses to implement many of the recommendations. There is no immediate call on the public purse and as Graham Allen says in his letter to the prime minister:

“This is a tremendous opportunity for this and future governments to take a long-term view on tackling causes rather than symptoms, reducing dysfunction and creating essential social investments with good rates of return. Countless children, who would otherwise underachieve, will be able to meet their potential and in turn become fully rounded citizens and, above all, excellent parents if the right decisions are taken now”.

In the meantime, if you fancy singing Zoom, zoom zoom and other rhymes with your under five, then find a rhyme time session near you. I will certainly be going again. Maybe this time I will even have the confidence to stay for a chat with some of the other Rhyme timers.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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7 Responses to “The rhyme and reason for early intervention”

  1. theProle says:

    “An authoritative study of boys assessed by nurses at age 3 as being ‘at risk’ found that they had two and a half times as many criminal convictions as the group deemed not to be at risk at age 21. Moreover, in the at-risk group, 55 per cent of the convictions were for violent offences, compared to 18 per cent for those who were deemed not to be at risk.”

    I’m not sure if I agree or not with your general conclusions (I’ve no strong view one way or another on the issue, providing it doesn’t involve throwing my taxes away), but the study you quote there is of little value for anything, apart from possibly getting an award for stating the obvious.

    Why do you think kids go on the at risk register? Usually there parents have drug problems, are petty criminals, or both. Kids growing up in that sort of environment usually copy it, and end up drug using petty criminals like their parents. So far, so obvious. However, it sheds no light on the question of if the damage is done by the age of 1, 5, 10, or 16. In order to shed any light on that, the children’s status would have to have changed at the age being studied.

    Unfortunately, the only change in status that usually occurs is the take the child into care, and we already know that kids taken into care at any age have more problems, and are more likely to end up criminals and with drug problems than children brought under any other circumstances. (I personally think given the appalling outcomes for children taken into care, we should use it as much more or a last resort than we do).

  2. Robert says:

    Does that include parents of drug addicts, drunks, and parents who do not want the child, also how about the kids in care. Labour had interesting idea on children and social services only bother when the media pick up on a death or poor service.

    All this rubbish about looking after kids, I worked from 6am until 6pm. my wife worked from 6pm all night this is what labour and the Tories wanted , so my kids like my self ended up latch key kids.

    The stopping of Income support the main stay of parents looking after children at home is ending and JSA is taking over, great new labour idea.

    This is again all smoke mirrors and bull shit.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    I think that the Prole and Robert are being a little unfair on Peter; the main premise of the article is not the causes of at risk children, nor whether 2-parent families should both work. The fundamental point is that the early years are the most formative in a persons cognitive development. Labour has a fairly good track record in early years development; they expanded access to early years care through the tax credit system and funded free early years care for every child over 3 for 2 1/2 days a week (I think this is right, apologies if the details are wrong). In addition the development of the Early Years Practitioner scheme was developed during the last few years with the aim of increasing the level of professionalism in early years settings. SureStart and BookStart are an integral part of this and are/were at risk from proposed cuts. This is a key issue for our future and one that deserves illumination.

  4. Tom Bage says:

    I think Peter and Graham Allen are right – early intervention is the future of social policy in the UK.

    The part of the report which I think Robert and theProle might be interested in are the massive savings that an early intervention programme coud generate. You speak about throwing taxes away, and I agree – every government has a duty to spend each pound as if it were their own – but what is more wasteful than allowing children and families to fail in the early years and then picking up the staggering welfare, prison, drug rehab and other associated bills later on?

    Spend a little, early, and save a lot.

  5. Early intervention is important, but how do you intervene when the parents are uninterested or unresponsive, bar the nuclear option of taking kids away which simply isn’t feasible on a large scale and often causes problems of its very own?

    Environment matters – I’ve heard that the single most predictive factor for whether or not a child will end up imprisoned is whether a brother of father(-figure) is imprisoned by the time they reach the age of 10.

    And whilst support can be provided, it has to be taken up. You can do that to some extent by making it obligatory, but many of the problem cases will have had large experience at dodging their obligations. What can we do here?

    This isn’t a criticism, it’s a question. If there are effective solutions, we need to hear them.

  6. Peter Watt says:

    A good point Edward. The Allen report has a whole series of very practical proposals. There is a link to it in the article.

  7. MickleMas says:

    I would suggest that ‘early intervention’ will be the only effective action to combat dysfunctional families. Why then, have successive governments (particularly Labour) failed to introduce suitable legislative measures since the long-term benefits to society would be immense? Since effective intervention into family life would require a large degree of state ‘persuation’ and involvement governments have been too cowardly (and, of course, such state intervention would be anathema in a Cameron “big society”). I believe Graham Allen’s proposals should be enthusiastically welcomed by Ed M and be used as a basis for formulating Labour’s social policy.

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