Will The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood raise the status of the Early Years?

On Friday 18th June, The Duchess of Cambridge launched the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood.  It has three functions:

1. Promote and commission high quality research to increase knowledge and share best practice

2. Work with people from across the private, public and voluntary sectors to collaborate on new solutions

3, Develop creative campaigns to raise awareness and inspire action to drive real positive change in the Early Years

I am very chuffed because I have been keen on a Royal College of sorts for a long time. We need someone to champion us and build the status of the Early Years sector and while politicians are often in a rush to make a difference during the comparatively short time they have in office, royals are there for life. This perhaps explains why it has taken 10 years to get to this point.

Last year, I remember listening to The Duchess speak very thoughtfully about her interest in Early Years. She was adamant that this grew not from being a mother but from being patrons of charities where the symptoms of the problems all tailed back to the child’s earliest years. Her Five Big Questions on the Under Fives  public survey in 2020 garnered over 500,000 responses, revealing that recognition of the importance of the Early Years is incredibly low.

“Many mistakenly believe that my interest stems from having children of my own. While of course I care hugely about their start in life, this ultimately sells the issue short. If we only expect people to take an interest in the early years when they have children, we are not only too late for them, we are underestimating the huge role others can play in shaping our most formative years too.”

She acknowledges that getting it right for children is one of the greatest issues of our time. I couldn’t agree more because I am unconvinced that we realise just how many children are the collateral damage of a L’Oreal dominated “Because I am worth it” greedy, self-obsessed, celebrity society. She points out that the social cost of late intervention has been estimated to be over £17 billion a year.  She also reaffirms that the Early Years is not simply about how we raise our children. It’s how we raise the next generation of adults. It’s about the society we will become.

Rather timely and at the recent Early Years Alliance conference, Professor James Heckman who is currently conducting some new research into this particular subject, reaffirmed this thinking.

The launch of the Centre for Early Childhood coincides with the inaugural report: Big Change Starts Small with six areas which underlie the critical impact on the Early Years on lifelong outcomes and mental wellbeing.

1. Raising the awareness of the extraordinary impact of the Early Years

2. Building a mentally healthier and more nurturing society

3. Creating communities of support

4. Strengthening the Early Years workforce

5. Putting the data to work for Early Years

6. Supporting long-term and intergenerational change

The report uses brain development research from the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University and from neuroscientists and academics in the UK to set out what the science and analysis has taught us: that our brains reach 90% of their adult size by age five; that children of parents with poor mental health are three times more likely to have a mental health difficulty themselves than children whose parents have good mental health; and that the cost of late intervention each year in England is at least £16.4 billion.

The Duchess has all the evidence she needs to help us sharpen up the Early Years sector, collate all the research into one place and be a voice for the importance of well-trained and supported staff whose status is recognised and valued.

The Royal Foundation will always be politically neutral but maybe it can shame the Government to pay attention and do something credible rather than the usual weasel words we must endure. It will be interesting to see if the Early Years Alliance will have to continue using Freedom of Information requests to get the answers to funding questions?

I can’t help but wonder if the information provided by the Royal Foundation about the benefits of investment will push the Government into writing a National Strategy for Children instead of continuing with their penny-pinching piecemeal approach?

The Big Change Starts Small report tracks the Duchess’ concern about the mental wellbeing of the nation. She recognises that our earliest relationships, environments and experiences shape not only the adults we become but also how we parent the next generation. This is set amid the growing concerns that more than 5% of children under the age of five are showing signs of diagnosable mental health problems.

I was also sad but glad that she recognises nearly a third of five-year-old’s do not reach a good level of development and the gap between more disadvantaged children and their peers at age five has already opened up significantly. Results indicate that more disadvantaged children are 4.6 months behind their peers by the end of the reception year.  For some children and some families, the risk of experiencing adverse events that have negative impacts on wellbeing and development is greater than for others. Listen to the examples of two real children here.

Given an estimated 1.3 million babies and preschool children live in poverty (which represents over a third of children aged under five in the UK and families with children under three years old face the highest risk), now is the time to take positive action and put the needs of our youngest children first.

We know the recent pandemic has made things harder for many families with babies and young children taking an additional toll on their mental health and wellbeing. The effects have been felt most by those already living in disadvantaged or difficult situations.

The underlying message is that an epidemic of mental ill health is looming and presents a national crisis. Investing early and raising the status of the Early Years is the way forward and The Duchess wants to give a voice to this.  Let’s make sure we provide her with a loudspeaker and collaborate to amplify her message.

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