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How we're failing our greatest resource

Britain must adopt a more coherent and humane view of its smallest citizens, says Tricia David (left). Imagine telling the parents of an 11-year-old that for the next five years their child's education will take place in a different school each year and in most years, they would have to attend one school during the morning and another in the afternoon.

The backlash from infuriated parents and teachers, shocked at the blatant lack of continuity would transfix the nation.

Yet this is the reality for a large proportion of the most vulnerable children in our society because of the lack of a coherent nursery policy for our 0-5s.

In order to give a child wider learning opportunities, the chance to make friends, or to be cared for while a parent works, parents and children can find themselves on a constantly changing merry-go-round of home, childminder, playgroup, nursery and reception class.

During this vitally important phase of life, when brain growth is at its most rapid and learning styles are laid down, the greatest proportion of a human being's knowledge is acquired.

Our current policy mish-mash is the result not only of decades of government neglect, but an ignorance of the exciting potential of our under-fives. A few valuable childcare initiatives have been implemented but, in general, ministers have betrayed their own ignorance.

In other European countries, more attention is paid to the needs of the very young and their parents. Sweden, which has just placed its substantial pre-school provision under its ministry of education, regards children as a communal, national responsibility.

While attitudes towards older children have changed, the under-fives still seem to be caught in a time warp. The evidence suggests they are still thought of as possessions, not people with active minds who are trying to make sense of the world.

Just try the simple experiment of "opportunity sampling" in a local supermarket.

Watch how many babies and small children are actually treated as if they are involved in the joint venture. See if they are spoken to, touched encouragingly or smiled at by the adults they accompany. Young parents here tell me they do not speak to their babies in public for fear of being thought strange. But we are certainly thought strange by those from other cultural traditions.

Much research evidence spells out the long-term physical and psychological consequences of diet, health and experiences in early childhood.

It is now recognised that "relative poverty", and not only "absolute poverty", has serious consequences. By the mid-1980s, one in six children in the UK was living in poverty.

Within the European Union, only Ireland and Portugal had higher proportions. Among the richer nations of the world, those with the highest proportions of children living in relative poverty also had the highest infant mortality rates.

In other words, the more fairly shared the national wealth, the less likely a baby is to die in the early months of life.

Richard Wilkinson's survey Unfair Shares shows that the growing differentials in access to a healthy environment, a good diet and other basic necessities are often localised.

There is a high correlation between social deprivation and educational achievement - the decline in average reading standards is related to the rapid increase in relative poverty and is unaffected by teaching methods.

The survey clearly shows that children who were low birth-weight babies from relatively well-off homes have caught up with their peers by the age of 10, but those from homes where money is short do not.

There are other forms of disadvantage which affect children's capacity to achieve their potential.

Here in the UK we have the highest proportion of single parents in the EU, and we know that single parenthood is linked to poverty. We have the second-highest proportion of unemployed fathers , while those who are in employment work the longest hours in Europe.

In the current climate of panic about violence by children, it is ironic that children, especially those of pre-school age, are those most likely to be at risk of injury and death (from adults).

It should also cause alarm to consider the statistics showing that children under five receive more "smacks" than older children.

Worldwide, the lives and learning of children under five are also limited by hunger, ill health and war. Meanwhile, a fraction of world spending on "defence" or half the sum spent annually on cigarettes in Europe alone would be enough to meet the basic health and dietary needs of these young children.

We have much to thank science for in terms of children's survival but perhaps in our technically sophisticated world, we have become unable to recognise the rhythms of life in young children to take them into our stride.

* This article is adapted from Tricia David's inaugural lecture as professor of early childhood education at Canterbury Christ Church College. Her books include Under Five - Under-educated? and Child Protection and Early Years Teachers, both Open University Press

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