Scotland could steal a march on the rest of the UK by introducing a co-ordinated national early- years programme, a leading Oxford professor has said.
At a Royal Society of Edinburgh event on "early stage intervention" last week, the director of the Centre for Research into Parenting and Children at Oxford University said Scotland, with its history of excellence in education, had the chance to do things better than England.
Professor Ann Buchanan highlighted the risks of stress, neglect or a lack of stimulation in the first years of a child's life on its well-being and development, and on the economy. Early intervention could not only improve children's well-being long-term, but also produce savings as it led to increased employment and fewer arrests later in life.
Professor Buchanan laid out six steps to improve early intervention, combining universal services for all children and specific ones for those with additional support needs. "Universal services have the opportunity of `growing the brains' of all children. Specific services for those in need should develop the brains of those who otherwise may not reach their potential," she said.
First, foundations were needed, such as establishing who would drive the initiative and how partnerships with local authorities and the third sector would be set up and funded.
"High quality" pre-school provision was required for children from age three, with provision for more disadvantaged ones from age two, with regular cognitive and emotional assessment.
Families at risk, such as those with single parents or mothers with a history of drink and drug abuse, should have access to a "family nurse partnership", similar to those launched in England, from pregnancy up until three to five years.
In areas of high deprivation, family centres and Sure Start centres should provide a "one stop shop" for a range of support services.
It was also vital to improve the home learning environment, said Professor Buchanan. This could be helped by programmes such as PEEP (Parents Early Education Partnership), which helps parents make the most of everyday learning opportunities at home.
With the help of the media, cultures around parenting should be changed, with advertising campaigns such as the Government initiative on Play, Talk, Read.
One for all
Professor Buchanan also called for early-years intervention at an event held by Scotland's Futures Forum, the David Hume Institute and the Goodison Group - the second event on the theme "By 2025 Scotland will be a world-leading learning nation".
She was joined by Helen Chambers, head of strategy at Inspiring Scotland, a "venture philanthropy" body which aims to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
Ms Chambers argued for a re-structuring of service provision for children and their families at a local level.
Rather than children being involved with a variety of organisations, from social workers to health workers and charities, one new institution could provide all these services centrally.
There would then be no duplication of structures and people dealing with the same cases would no longer be on different grading and reward systems or work within different organisational cultures.
This approach was unlikely to require additional funding, Ms Chambers said, as it would use the resources already available with greater cost- effectiveness.
But a way had to be found to "bring the private sector in", she stressed. "At the moment, systems tend to exclude or compete with them, rather than find a collaborative way forward."