Government to 'accelerate' early-years work despite cuts

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Investment in the first few years of a child's life is the key to tackling social problems, Education Secretary tells children's summit

The prospect of swingeing cuts to public services will not deflect the Scottish Government from its early-intervention commitment, ministers pledged last week.

On the day after Chancellor George Osborne's emergency budget, Education Secretary Michael Russell said the Scottish Government's resolve to tackle social problems through intervening in the first few years of a child's life remained undented.

Far from using the economic climate as an excuse for short-term fixes, he wanted to "accelerate" work in the early years, he said.

Unprecedented pressure on the public purse demanded that efforts were ploughed into early intervention, in order to reduce the long-term costs of poor education, ill health and crime.

Improved support for young children and their families was "the key to addressing many of Scotland's deep-seated social problems like poverty and poor health, poor attainment and anti-social behaviour". Mr Russell added that every pound invested in the early years ultimately saved taxpayers up to pound;7.

He was speaking at Scotland's first "children's summit", in Edinburgh, where delegates signed a "pledge for Scotland's children", which committed them to improving children's services, despite the tough times ahead.

"As budgets continue to shrink and service redesign becomes more vital than ever, political differences need to be cast aside and different sectors need to come together and speak as one," Mr Russell said.

But the clock was ticking. Following the decision to defer spending cuts in Scotland by a year, only six months were left "to begin reshaping the services that we provide".

Scotland's chief medical officer, Harry Burns, told delegates that early intervention was "absolutely fundamental to the future of this country". Merely reacting to social and health problems when they appeared later in life would not do.

He cited Israeli-American sociologist Aaron Antonovsky, who questioned why some people sent to Nazi concentration camps as children were able to cope with adult life better than others. Antonovsky concluded that all-round health hinged on whether people grew up with a "sense of coherence" about their environment.

Experts in England say Scottish policymakers are leading the way in early intervention. Robin Balbernie, a renowned consultant psychotherapist, who has worked with very young children and their troubled families, spoke at a recent early-years conference in Glasgow.

He said research showed early intervention in any one case might only show its full worth after 15-20 years, making it difficult to sell as a policy to governments. Yet "Scotland has really taken it on board - far more than England".

Delegates at last week's summit responded enthusiastically to the call for improved children's services, come what may, but one false note was struck.

Some scanned the dozens of "suits" around the room and commented privately that Scotland's first children's summit had missed an opportunity - by not inviting any children.


Brian Donaldson, respectme

"No one has a problem with the idea of early intervention, but we need to ensure resources are channelled so it can happen."

Heather Gray, Who Cares? Scotland

"Children need to be involved more in Scotland - people should be able to hear directly what they are saying."

Bert Sandeman, Dundee City Council integrated children's services

"Information on best practice from around the country and around the world."

Margaret McLeod, YouthLink Scotland

"A greater understanding of the contribution youth work can make in the transition from primary to secondary, and from adolescence to adulthood."

Martin Crewe, Barnardo's Scotland

"Involvement of voluntary sector in planning of children's services - not just the delivery."

Jane Crawford, Play Scotland

"Recognition of the child's right to play in all local authority areas."

John Alexander, Dumfries and Galloway Council

"Clear leadership and direction from the Scottish Government in prioritising early years and early intervention in a challenging financial climate for public services."

Kate Cherry, HMIE

"Sharing of information on what's working well."

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