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A 'dark side' to the mantra

Pick up a policy document about any social problem and the new development will be something to do with "early intervention". For example, the latest antisocial behaviour document from the Scottish Government, Promoting Positive Outcomes, explains that the plan is now to "place prevention and early and effective intervention at the heart of the action to tackle antisocial behaviour".

In a report by Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, and Graham Allen, former Labour minister, a cross-party demand is made to their leaders to support a nationwide extension of early intervention programmes targeted at improving opportunities for deprived children up to three years old.

Early intervention ties together old "moralists" like Duncan Smith who talk about the "underclass" with more "caring" politicians, researchers and commentators on the left who prefer the idea of "support" being provided to parents and children, rather than the more punishment-based approach of ASBOs.

But there are some serious problems with this approach, perhaps most obviously the way in which structural questions regarding inequality are quickly sidestepped as we focus on the behaviour of the "underclass".

Family is everything it seems, as Duncan Smith notes that it is better to come from a good family in a bad neighbourhood than a bad family in a good neighbourhood. As another early intervention document, Every Parent Matters, points out: "Research shows that the support you give your child's learning matters more than your background, size of family or level of education."

So forget wealth or privilege, who needs Eton and Oxbridge? Simply "support your child's learning" and, hey presto, we can all hug a baby hoodie, read them a bedtime story, and when they grow up they'll hug us back. How sweet.

Early intervention also has a profoundly deterministic core, with "evidence" of its effectiveness often coming from the likes of David Farrington, who argues that "antisocial children grow up to become antisocial adults who go on to raise antisocial children", but says less about the fact that there are more "antisocial" children who do not go on to become criminal adults than who do.

Likewise, the idea of teenagers being caught up in "destructive cycles" of behaviour has a rather Pavlovian ring to it, and has little sense that "juveniles" will (or even might) grow out of crime. Nevertheless, the apparent logic that it's "cheaper and more sensible to tackle problems before they begin" attracts many followers.

Here, however, we find the true "dark side" to the early intervention mantra, where we see "problems before they begin" and treat people as potential dangers to themselves and others before they have become so; where we understand education and family policy negatively - simply in terms of antisocial behaviour; and where we look at people, communities and politics through the prism of damage limitation and harm reduction.

Behind the cuddly, welfare-sounding support for parents and children lies a profound pessimism about people and politics. Indeed, in the preamble to Duncan Smith and Allen's document, we are informed that this represents "an unprecedented plea for the major political parties to put aside their differences to avert social collapse".

So remember, you lot, tease your toddlers and the End of the World is Nigh. Welcome to the brave new world of early intervention.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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