Child abuse and behavioural difficulties will continue to blight future generations unless the Scottish Government and local authorities take a stronger lead in early intervention, Children's Commissioner Tam Baillie has warned.
A study published by Mr Baillie reveals that, although the importance of pre-empting problems at an early age is widely accepted, there is a danger of such sentiments ringing hollow without more action on the ground.
Implementation of the 2008 Early Years Framework was "patchy" across Scotland, with a survey of 268 respondents - most in educational workplaces - showing that some authorities lacked a "coherent approach".
Mr Baillie said: "What this early research indicates is that there's an urgent need both for Government to set a stronger lead and for all sectors - health boards, education and social services - to pool resources and create joint funding for early-years programmes."
A "much stronger" approach was needed at a national level, as children had "a right to expect governments to ensure they're properly cared for, protected from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents".
The Strathclyde University study, which was commissioned by Mr Baillie, drew on 12 semi-structured interviews with local authority and health service staff. It found that the concordat between the Scottish Government and authorities had fallen short in realising the Early Years Framework's recommendations.
The majority of authorities' "single outcome agreements" were "generally unspecific about early years". While authorities and their workforces backed the Government's emphasis on intervention at a young age, it was less easy to identify new practices on the ground which were specifically related to the framework.
The survey, drawing on data from all 32 local authorities, revealed that knowledge about the framework needed to be improved, with 39 per cent vague about its ambitions. Only 39 per cent had access to continuing professional development about the framework.
Less than a fifth of respondents said that the framework influenced their practice a "great deal", although the report predicts that the publication of local policies will begin to make it more relevant to staff.
There was "considerable activity" in the early years across Scotland, but evaluation was needed to determine what worked.
Strong Government direction was needed to convince local authorities to keep pumping money into the early years during a time of drastic budget cuts. The perceived absence of such guidance represented "at the very least a challenge, and for some a threat, to implementation".
"If the early years are to be a national priority, there needs to be a much-improved public understanding about why," the report stated.
Widespread progress in implementation of early-years projects, it concluded, was hampered by a "contradictory lack of familiarity with its content and its aims".
Children's Minister Adam Ingram insisted the contradiction was in the report, since it called for more central direction while acknowledging that the Government could no longer formally influence local implementation.
He said the Government already provided leadership and support of the type called for, and ministers were making visits across Scotland to discuss progress and emphasise that the early years should remain a high priority.
Good progress was being made in response to the framework, although he hinted at obstacles ahead by citing financial pressures imposed by the Westminster Government.
The report, authored by Aline-Wendy Dunlop of Strathclyde University's school of education, recommends a larger-scale study to ensure comprehensive identification of all staff responsible for early-years projects.