Finally, we're getting serious about early years

Nobody doubts the value of early years education. For years, academics have advocated it and politicians have spoken of its vital role. Medical officers have said it has benefits for young children's brains and police chiefs have argued that it leads to a reduction in crime. So why is it that Scotland still spends more than twice as much on primary school children, three times as much on secondary pupils, and four times as much on further and higher education students?

This week's News Focus (pages 12-15) celebrates the fact that early years is set to become a central plank of national policy. There are good grounds for celebration. The Early Years Taskforce, which reported last month, has argued for a shift in the balance of public services towards early intervention by 2016. And national and local government, together with health authorities, will redirect pound;272 million towards an Early Years Change Fund by 2015.

But there will be a degree of cynicism too, because we have heard much of this before. Back in the 1990s, early intervention in P1-3 promised to change the lives of children living in poverty, with increased levels of literacy. At the start of the new millennium, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that while overall reading levels had risen, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children had not diminished, and a report on Poverty in Scotland concluded that the poverty gap had not closed.

In 2006, the SNP was calling for more nursery teachers, but year on year the figures have fallen, from 1,704 to 1,496 in 2011. Promises of more teachers in nurseries turned into promises of access to one, as Renfrewshire pulled its teachers out of nurseries, and other councils made them peripatetic.

What is different this time? First, the shared services approach that lies at the heart of today's politics, from education to social work, to health, to voluntary services. Not only is it more efficient in a recession, but it is widely recognised as being more effective. Second, the realisation that it is not enough to target children, but parents need to be involved. Last year former Labour minister Susan Deacon, in her report Joining the Dots: A better start for Scotland's children, called for action to be taken, including the provision of children and family centres. Finally, the money that could support them is now being put in place.

The funding still falls well below that of many European countries, including England, but it does, as the taskforce says, represent a huge opportunity and a good starting point. It will be down to the local politicians who are elected on Thursday to build on that momentum - and to the national politicians to make sure that it is just the start.

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