The Early Years: A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a fit and healthy childhood
Policy concentration on the early years is of vital importance for the wellbeing of children now and for their future health outcomes and life chances. Evidence-based research points to the need for a focus that is properly holistic and to precipitate intervention to promote a healthy diet, regular patterns of activity and rest and give children the best start in life.
In 2005, The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (General Comment No. 7) acknowledged the need for a fresh strategy, pinpointing research findings
indicating that a failure to prioritise early years’ welfare exposes children to the ills of ‘malnutrition, disease, poverty, neglect, social exclusion and a range of other adversities.’
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom, considers that robust early years’ policies make both social and economic sense:
‘Too many children and young people do not have the start in life they need, leading to high costs for society, and too many affected lives’ (Forward to ‘The 1001 Critical Days’, June 16th 2014).
This observation is significant because there remains much to do. In 2012, the NSPCC reviewed the United Kingdom policy scenario for babies and very young children and concluded that identifiable advances in maternity and early years’ provision did not detract from the fact that: ‘babies are still particularly vulnerable’ and ‘their rights are not always recognised or realised’. (‘All Babies Count – But what about their rights?’ Sally Knock and Lorriann Robinson, January 2012).
Knock and Robinson highlight glaring gaps of support and provision – especially in maternity services whereby the fostering of a strong parent-child bond is invariably sacrificed to a concentration upon purely medical practicalities such as labour, birth and the immunisation programme.
The All Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood aims, in this report, to offer the incoming Government recommendations for an early years’ strategy that are credible, feasible and evidence-based and will enable the United Kingdom to set the standard in a crucial policy field both at home and abroad.
In defining ‘early childhood’, we follow the example of The United Nations (2005) Convention on the Right of the Child by examining the period of 0-8 including, as it does, the vital transition phase from pre-school to primary school. We consider the antenatal period and maternal physical and mental health, methods of feeding the
newborn, parental support services both hospital and home-based and infant nutrition and socioeconomic factors that may impact upon the health and wellbeing of young children.
The report examines the optimum balance between sleep, rest and activity, the need for freely-chosen play, safeguarding measures and the importance of respecting cultural diversity in all early years’ settings. Above all, we analyse the relationship between young families and the professionals whose role it is to ensure that babies have the very best start in life, supported by parents who have confidence in the choices that they make and the advice that they are given.
Just as new families require mentoring so that they can act in the best interests of their children, so the early years’ workforce needs training and continuous professional development to ensure that the advice given is of the highest possible quality and specifically tailored to the individual family.
Early Years’ students from The University of Northampton (interviewed) explain what a positive difference their newly acquired knowledge has made to their performance in the settings and Government recognition of The Early Years as a developmental stage in its own right and the creation of the new posts of Early Years Teacher and Early Years Educator have been positive.
Yet as the Ilkeston ‘Mums Group’ (interviewed) makes clear, there is still no guarantee of uniform excellence in the delivery of services nationwide and no assurance of continuity between, for example, advice on feeding from the midwife and the health visitor, or the emphasis put on freely-chosen play in an early years’ setting and a primary school. If young children are to thrive, we believe it is essential that there is a national consensus and political will behind multi-disciplinary working in the early years.
We see the early years as a window of opportunity and make no apology for the fact that each section of this report is accompanied by many policy recommendations. It has not been possible to produce a uniform handful of ‘asks’, just as the early years itself is a rich, complex and multifarious developmental phase. However, neither do we consider it to be feasible to achieve everything that we recommend in the lifespan of a single Government.
This is a two, even three term journey. However, if the nation’s families and the early years workforce are to embark upon it, the Government must be prepared to provide the resources; the Cabinet Minister for Children and Families, the commitment to multi-disciplinary co-operation to achieve an early years workforce that is truly ‘joined up’ and, above all, the finance to make well–intentioned aspiration a reality.
In an age of austerity, by spending early, the later savings to education, health, social or criminal justice services will be immense. Investing in the children of today is not a gamble