Invest in early years across UK

16th January 2009 at 00:00

We waited a long time for Scotland's 10-year plan for improving services and other support for young children and their families. Then, like the proverbial bus, another early years report came along. The Early Years Framework offers a 10-year vision for achieving a more coherent and community-based approach to supporting Scotland's families.

A day later, UNICEF published its report, A league table of early childhood education and care in economically-advanced countries. It reminded us why we must do more in Scotland to help families with young children. And, as we slide ever deeper into recession and reports of nursery closures increase, urgent action is required now.

The Early Years Framework does not offer new money, but does provide strong arguments for redirecting some existing resources at a local level into early years services and towards developing better environments and more support within communities for young children and families. It points to the need to improve the life chances of all Scotland's children by targeting the early years - from pre-birth to age eight. It focuses attention on the youngest children, where the dearth of services not only affects those most in need but also makes identifying them more difficult.

Key elements in the framework include: encouraging communities to become more engaged in supporting young children and their families; a renewed emphasis on 0 to 3 years as the period of a child's life which shapes future outcomes; and breaking down barriers between education and childcare through a move towards more flexible, integrated services.

What does or should it mean? It should mean that authorities and their partners ensure a year-on-year improvement in the availability of services which offer an integrated "whole" child approach and meet parental needs irrespective of their employment status. It should mean recognising that support for young children isn't just about services, but a community-wide approach to developing more supportive environments - from space to play to housing. It should also mean strengthening, and in some cases broadening, workforce roles and skills in working with children, families and communities.

It will be important for the Scottish Government to encourage the development and sharing of models and practice - from nature kindergartens and more use of the arts, to innovative models for family support services.

It is a large and ambitious agenda. Without new national resources to back it up, it will provide the first test of the new procedures established through the concordat between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The framework sets out sound reasons why authorities should realign and reprioritise resources. But will it be enough?

Improving the early years makes sense as a long-term investment. But Children in Scotland believes the Treasury should invest in these services across the UK as part of the measures being developed to offset the recession - and we have written to the Chancellor, urging him to do just that.

Bronwen Cohen is chief executive of Children in Scotland.

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