It’s time to support the under-threes and their families

When the pandemic struck, and lockdown meant that parents and their children were forced to stay at home, I was struck by how, what had seemed like a cliché, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, acquired new meaning. Every parent or carer needs help and support with parenting at some point, especially in the early days of their child’s life. And while the cliché no longer seemed appropriate to modern Western culture, lockdown took away our usual forms of support and exposed how much we depend on each other for support. Our village in the early years has become the community of friends and family, health visitors, nurseries and childminders, family support workers and others who parents and carers depend on.

These days it’s widely accepted that the early years (birth to eight, and particularly the first three years) are a critically important time in a child’s life and for their future outcomes. It’s when children learn so much – their brains are developing rapidly and need the stimulus of play and communication. Disadvantage at this age can have long-lasting effects, resulting in poorer outcomes and health inequalities through adulthood. Economists, James Heckman, for example, demonstrate that investment in the early years is one of the best investments[1] society can make. Increasingly, public policy is recognising this. Evidence shows, for example, that high quality early learning and childcare (ELC) has a significant impact on child development, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Consequently, there has been a major expansion in provision.

However, supporting families must first mean ensuring the infrastructure is in place to give all families what they need to bring up their children. The UNCRC, which Scotland plans to incorporate into domestic law later this year is clear that the state must support parents to support children.[2] It states:

‘…the family, as the fundamental group in society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.’

Even before the pandemic, too many families were being swept away by a rising tide of poverty with figures for child poverty[3] once again on the rise. The pandemic, has of course, made things worse. Families need to have sufficient income, decently paid work and adequate housing as a minimum basis from which to bring up their children. And why would we not ensure that families have enough to live on when there is such compelling evidence[4] that income has a clear and causal impact on children’s outcomes? Families may still need family support beyond this. But having their basic needs met must always be the starting premise, making the need for ongoing support less likely.

Systems of support weren’t perfect before the pandemic but having them stripped away has certainly exposed how much we need and depend on them. There has been considerable effort to improve early years support in recent years: new pathways for health visitors and for midwives, and the expansion of ELC. While these are welcome and have improved support for parents considerably, there needs to be a pathway that puts families and their needs at the centre. We need to talk to parents and carers about what they need and when in those early years, and design support around this.

Although the very early years, from birth to three, are crucial both in terms of child development and because they are when parents ask and look for help more than any other and form the networks that provide mutual aid. However, these years are also when support is strangely absent. There are health visitor visits and childcare for some, but there’s little opportunity for parents to come together for peer support. While there are, of course, many wonderful local projects (like, for example, Stepping Stones in Edinburgh and Midlothian Sure Start) they exist on a funding knife-edge rather than being part of a properly funded network of universal support for parents no matter where they live.

We know that parents from the most disadvantaged areas tend to use childcare less, often because they’re not working, and they don’t see the need. But this also means that they and their children miss out on the chance to socialise and to form friendships and support networks. Children in Scotland and Parenting across Scotland’s pilot of the Open Kindergarten model in Midlothian and Edinburgh found that many parents and carers were isolated and lonely (often with poor mental health because of this)[5]. Open drop-in sessions are a straightforward way for parents to find support, meet others and improve family life.

When we talk about family support or about early years, when we say we will ‘Keep the Promise’[6] to support families in Scotland better, we need to ensure that our youngest citizens and their families are at the heart of this. We need a properly funded comprehensive network of family centres for Scotland’s families – it’s time to support the under-threes and their families.