So Scotland's political parties are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in urging the coalition Government to save jobs by continuing to invest in aircraft carriers. Can we count on the same cross-party consensus when it comes to saving Scottish jobs and promoting well-being by investing in children and those who care for them at school, at home and in the community?
Maybe. The good news is the Scottish Parliament's finance committee is serious about trying to prevent, rather than clean up after, negative social outcomes. In its evidence to the inquiry into the efficient delivery of public services, Children in Scotland has made the case for prioritising early childhood via the Early Years Framework agreed by the Scottish Government and local authorities in December 2008. Enhanced child well-being leads inevitably to more successful schools.
Like others, we have pointed to the long-term personal, societal and economic benefits of substantial strategic investments from pre-conception through the early years. These benefits are now well evidenced in international research reports.
What is less appreciated is that investment in integrated early education and childcare services also offers immediate economic, as well as social, benefits for the Scottish economy. As the Early Years Framework points out, integrated services support employment and enhance productivity, as well as reducing the need for costly crisis interventions.
The evidence is there and it's not all new. In 1991, an economist colleague and I undertook a cost-benefit analysis of investment in childcare services for the Institute for Public Policy Research. "Childcare in a Modern Welfare System" looked at the benefits of three models for developing early childhood and education services. The results were impressive. Net returns to families were major, as high as 51 per cent on investment for the Treasury.
The most ambitious models yielded the highest results, and it was estimated that child poverty was reduced by nearly 50 per cent. We found a "galvanising" effect: early-years services, when offered on a universally- supported (but not free) basis, make local economies far more effective in their economic and employment impacts than the building of roads - or aircraft carriers.
What can we take from this research? The key message is to develop services that fully integrate education with care. New research from the EC-funded Working for Inclusion programme, led by Children in Scotland, provides powerful evidence from across Europe that such investments are succeeding. In fact, they are especially beneficial as a tool of social inclusion, because they reduce child poverty and they are more effective in reaching families with poorer educational backgrounds.
Using tough times to make wise changes is not beyond our ability. The starting point is insisting that a nation that chooses to invest in aircraft carriers must also choose to invest in truly transformed early years services.
Bronwen Cohen, is chief executive of Children in Scotland and director of the EC Working for Inclusion programme.