The early years are at the forefront of Scottish educational policy as never before. What was long considered a fringe issue is becoming a central plank of national policy, an area that commands remarkable consensus. A penny has dropped with a resounding clatter: get things right for pre-school children and the rewards are enormous.
Momentum grew last month when the national Early Years Taskforce published its vision for the future. A driving ambition is to close the inequality divide that gapes from the day children set foot in primary school: five- year-olds with degree-educated parents are about 18 months ahead (in terms of vocabulary) of classmates whose mums and dads have no qualifications.
The taskforce has made a bold pronouncement that it will "put Scotland squarely on course to shifting the balance of public services towards early intervention and prevention by 2016".
National and local government are diverting money into these efforts with an Early Years Change Fund. From 2012-13 to 2014-15, the investment will increase each year, reaching a total of pound;272 million; in 2014-15 local government will put in pound;50 million, health pound;36 million, and the Scottish government pound;16.5 million.
This is "relatively modest compared with the pound;2.7 billion spent by the public sector each year on children", admits the taskforce, "but it presents a huge opportunity and a good starting point for all partners to consider how we can begin to direct more of this overall resource away from treating our problems to funding the solutions".
Inevitably - particularly in these difficult economic times - shifting priorities to the early years will inflict pain on other budgets; the taskforce flags up the need for "bold decisions around disinvestment at both a local and national level".
Priorities are clear: help parents to build strong attachments with their children; highlight the crucial role of play in children's physical, emotional, social and cognitive development; improve joint working and sharing of information across different agencies; cut bureaucracy and duplication of effort.
The taskforce will establish a "practice development team" to support local areas and a communities and families fund for local projects that bring "real tangible benefits", and will consult on proposed legal status for elements of 2008's early years framework.
A national parenting strategy - to cover corporate parents as well as families - will be produced, as well as a guide to essential skills, knowledge and values for everyone who works with a child or family in Scotland.
The long-term refinement of data is seen as crucial. "Robust management information" would allow "those on the frontline to respond quickly to client need and to changing circumstances."
Even iconoclasts are on board. Sue Palmer - the former primary headteacher who chairs the Scottish Play Policy Forum and wrote the much-discussed polemic Toxic Childhood - is not a natural supporter of government, and admits that it feels a little strange to be on the taskforce.
But she stresses that "Scotland is very much on the right track": the Scottish emphasis on the needs of individual children contrasts favourably with England's more top-down, bureaucratic approach, which she has lobbied against through the Early Childhood Action pressure group.
Scotland is far removed from what she describes as England's "nappy curriculum", with its long list of targets for pre-school children, in which "caring is becoming confused with education". Policymakers north of the border have got it right, believes Ms Palmer, with initiatives such as Play, Talk, Read, which began last year with the aim of helping parents stimulate their children from birth through low-cost, fun activities.
Much of the momentum behind the Scottish taskforce can be traced back to research by James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning University of Chicago economist who showed that for every $1 spent on the early years, $12 would be saved. The predicted savings go up and down - the taskforce quotes a 1:9 ratio - but are never less than spectacular.
Professor Heckman's baton passed in Scotland to chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns, who for years has been telling audiences around the country that the children most likely to go on to murder or commit other serious crimes can be identified at a very early age. Children neglected in the early years are not merely falling behind their peers: the physiological growth of their brains is stunted and they are being "wired up differently", which is extremely difficult to undo.
He points to compelling evidence that "broad processes", focusing on issues such as poverty, health, drugs and alcohol, have not made the desired improvements to health; individual support for the children most at risk should be the priority.
Detective chief superintendent John Carnochan, of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, has made a similarly memorable mark on the conference circuit. He has argued for shifting 5 per cent of funding from higher education to the pre-school sector; at present, spend-per-head in pre- school education is much lower than for other stages.
Mr Carnochan has likened locking up young criminals to an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff for people to fall off - "criminal justice isn't working, it's keeping a lid on it" - and backed the theory of Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, that violence is an "infection", spread by locking up young people.
The way to keep young people out of trouble, maintains Mr Carnochan, is to rewind more than a decade; this is why he expresses dismay at low salaries for pre-school staff and nurseries' vulnerability to cuts.
The Growing Up in Scotland study, which has been gathering the experiences of 14,000 children and their families since its launch in 2005, provides stark evidence of the divides between children even before they start school.
Gaps in cognitive ability by social background which exist at the age of 3 persist at 5. There are large differences in ability according to families' backgrounds, particularly pronounced in relation to parents' educational qualifications. At 5, compared with children whose parents have no qualifications, those with a degree-educated parent are around 18 months ahead on vocabulary and 13 months ahead on problem-solving ability.
The researchers say that it is "imperative" that children are helped with their communication skills from the earliest age - 22 months is an important developmental milestone - and that work is preventative rather than reactive, "as our findings suggest that it is particularly difficult to address existing language problems for children in this group in the pre-school period".
Parent-child activities can be of particular benefit to the cognitive development of children whose parents have lower educational qualifications, the research suggests, and it is recommended that initiatives such as Play, Talk, Read and Bookbug should target the pre- school children most likely to benefit from an improvement in problem- solving ability.
The importance of hauling up the stragglers is underlined by another long- term piece of work, the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project in England, which started in 1997 and is run by the universities of London and Oxford.
It is tracking the progress of 3,000 children from preschool onwards. In a March briefing, the researchers showed that differences in academic attainment and social-behavioural development related to background, which emerged at age 3, remained fairly stable to the age of 14.
"Let's get on with it" sums up the tone of Joining the Dots: A better start for Scotland's children, last year's report by Susan Deacon, honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science and a former health minister.
There is broad agreement about the importance of the early years, she wrote, but "it is a message that needs to be heard far more consistently in debate and translated into decisions".
There needed to be a "bias for action", including quicker removal of children from toxic homes where their "social and emotional development will be severely impaired". Professor Deacon, who was appointed by the Scottish government, called for a collective effort that reduced the onus on government, including the setting up of a national network of children and family centres.
This reflects a growing understanding about the importance of empowering parents in the early years, highlighted by both Growing Up in Scotland and EPPSE. The latter stressed the pivotal role of parents and communities for children who "succeeded against the (social) odds".
But the role of nurseries remains crucial. Growing Up in Scotland shows that children who did not attend any preschool education were more likely to show a deterioration in problem-solving ability. EPPSE finds that the effects of high-quality pre-school were still felt 10 years later in attainment and behaviour.
A mixed picture emerges from TESS analysis of pre-school HMIE reports published in 2012. Children tend to be happy and staff caring, but nurseries lack confidence in letting children plan their own learning and many appear to flounder under the greater weight of expectation on the preschool sector. One inspector calls for "more robust systems for monitoring and evaluating to help (staff) identify what they do well and what needs to improve"; the same sentence could be copied and pasted into the majority of reports.
Scotland remains a long way from being able to pat itself on the back about the early years, warns Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland.
"It's 14 years since Scotland's first childcare strategy was proposed and nearly a decade since an Audit Scotland report told councils to integrate pre-school education and childcare," she says. "Despite many task groups and reports under successive administrations, Scotland's services remain underdeveloped compared with many of our European neighbours, and fall far short of the EU Barcelona targets that specify full-day early childhood education and care places for at least 33 per cent of under-3s and 90 per cent of pre-school children over 3."
Scotland lacks the early years legislative structure of many EU countries, she says, and has paid too little attention to the increase in under-5s, meaning that some children do not receive their pre-school entitlements and there is a shortage of affordable childcare. The Scottish Childcare Lottery, published in February by Children in Scotland and the Daycare Trust, found that only a fifth of Scottish local authorities had enough childcare for parents in paid employment.
Dr Cohen welcomed first minister Alex Salmond's recent announcement that free nursery education is to increase from its current level of 475 hours a year to more than 600 hours for all three- and four-year-olds and all looked-after two-year-olds as part of the Children's Services Bill, to be introduced in Parliament next year.
But this is "markedly less generous" than in England - which is investing in 260,000 childcare places for 40 per cent of two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds - and Wales.
The evidence from the EU, stresses Dr Cohen, is that universal services catch vulnerable children more effectively than targeted ones.
While welcome, it is not yet clear how the first minister's 600 hours will be funded, says Lesley Gibb, who represents education directors' body ADES on the taskforce and is early years service manager for Stirling Council. Nevertheless, it is a "very, very exciting time" for the early years and she hopes that "creative solutions" will be found by local authorities working more closely with the voluntary sector.
Barnardo's Scotland operations director, SallyAnn Kelly - another member of the taskforce - is cautious in her enthusiasm for the increased recognition of the early years, underlining that children's services in Scotland operate in a different context to Nordic countries.
"We are a very divided and judgemental society," she says. "We don't show a compassion for the poorest people. We need to build that compassion, even in professional services."
She sees that reflected in attitudes to looked-after children: high numbers are excluded from school, and 80 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds in Cornton Vale and Polmont prisons were looked after by local authorities.
Early intervention is imperative, she says, and she dismisses the perception that the pay-off is only seen many years later: smoking cessation schemes have been linked to a sudden reduction in cot deaths, and children's lives improve quickly when removed from damaging homes where the situation is never going to improve
In a recent letter to TESS ("Early intervention is key", 13 April), ADES president Glenn Rodger and his equivalent at the Association of Directors of Social Work, Andrew Lowe, highlighted outstanding early-years schemes across Scotland, including the Glasgow parenting project; East Lothian's Signs of Safety Work (a child protection initiative) and the under-3s early education programme in North Ayrshire. But, they stressed, early intervention is not yet Scotland's default approach.
NURTURE THROUGH NATURE
Last July, a private nursery in Perth and Kinross was awarded a clean sweep of five "excellent" ratings by HMIE inspectors.
That it was a nature kindergarten - a concept seen as a Scandinavian curiosity until fairly recently - in itself tells a story about changing perceptions of pre-school education in Scotland.
Some aspects of Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, near Crieff, would bring out a cold sweat in more risk-averse educators: children build bridges over streams; whittle sticks with potato peelers; prepare logs for a fire; have naps on hammocks.
The nursery is one of two in Perth and Kinross - the other is Whistlebrae in Braco - run by Mindstretchers, a company that believes "all children are entitled to learn in a multi-sensory and naturally creative environment".
Educational consultant and co-founder Claire Warden, a former lecturer in primary education at the University of Strathclyde, says that a fallen tree encapsulates the company's ethos: while others may erect a barrier around it, Auchlone children will carry out a risk assessment, positing the benefits of climbing it and deciding which branches to cut off.
"A meaningful childhood allows you to make choices from an early age," she says.
One of the most important aspects of Auchlone are "floor books", giant scrapbooks that the children use to plan their learning. All visitors are encouraged to contribute to them - even inspectors.
This, in particular, has caught people's imagination - there are even Scandinavian educators travelling to Scotland for training and development the Mindstretchers way.
Ms Warden credits Curriculum for Excellence with allowing the two kindergartens to flourish: "It really does empower people to take on some of these visions."
SLOVENIA: CASE STUDY
Norway's early education has long been held up as a glowing example, but Children in Scotland also advises casting a eye to Slovenia. The former Yugoslavian state started from a position much further back in wealth, legislation and infrastructure; now it rates better for child well-being and has better child poverty statistics than Scotland.
Slovenia has been building up its early years sector since the 1990s. All children in the country - which has a population of 2 million - are now entitled to a subsidised full-day place, following the end of maternitypaternity care at 12 months.
Since 2000, parents have been required to pay 10-80 per cent of the cost of the early years services. Disadvantaged families may be exempt from payment or receive further subsidies.
Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there are enough pre-school places, and for providing funding and subsidising fees. They decide the level of fees, taking account of national regulations on pricing and parental income. Government funding has recently increased as a proportion of the national budget.
Slovenia has invested heavily in its workforce. All pre-school teachers must hold a three-year degree in pre-primary education, or a four-year degree in another field with a specialisation in pre-primary education.
Source: Children in Scotland early years briefing.
Original headline: Invest now in early education and reap the benefits later