Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England has been working – in various guises – with vulnerable and disadvantaged children for the last 30 years. In that time much has changed, in children’s lives, and in terms of what we know about how to help them. But one thing has remained constant – a broad consensus that to genuinely improve children’s long-term life chances we need to start younger. We know more than we did then, particularly about the benefits to lifetime mental health of support in the early years, but the basic fundamental argument is the same: to bring about change, we need to focus on the first years of life.
We have more than enough evidence as to why we should help children earlier, and what works best. This report sets out to ask the question: ‘given we’ve all known this for so long, why haven’t we done it?’ It describes how we could start changing the system to bring about the change in practice that we all want to see. In some aspects we have made progress – there has been real gains over the last two decades as successive governments have invested more funding – but it’s been incremental and inconsistent. As this paper demonstrates, the result is a system of support for children – and their families – during their first years of life which remains disjointed, fragmented and, in some areas, neglected. The fundamental problem clear to me 30 years ago – that the education system in England was too heavily focused on older children – remains as true today as it did then.
What is the result of this failure? Well, for hundreds of thousands of children in England it means their life-chances are undermined, if not defined, soon after birth – not only their chances of achieving in education, but also their long-term mental health, their ability to form positive relationships, and to get on in later life. For England as a whole, this means a big gap between where we are, and where we want to be in international rankings of educational attainment. The unpalatable truth is that there are still too many countries doing much better than us both in terms of educational outcomes and the wellbeing of children. Those countries that do better than us, start better than us. It really is that simple.