How Foundations for Life shows a way forward for public health

26 August 2016

By Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health

The early years are a vitally important time for laying the foundations to give every child the best possible chances of a healthy life, regardless of the socioeconomic situation they are born into. Engraining behaviours that are conducive to good physical health and mental wellbeing as early as possible is far easier and more cost-effective than attempting to change course in later life, making it a leading priority for public health.

Given the recent and ongoing cuts to public health funding, there has never been a more important time to make use of rigorous evaluations that can demonstrate the benefits of public health interventions. In core healthcare services, such evaluations are familiar and more commonplace, but our sector is still developing the tools and expertise to measure impact in areas further out, such as childhood development and whole-of-family health.

That’s why the Foundations for Life report from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) is so important. If early years’ interventions can show tangible results, it gives those commissioning services a positive, evidence-based reason to invest in programmes that address issues at this key stage. And by focusing on three key areas of child development – attachment, behaviour, and early cognitive and language development – the EIF’s review gives commissioners the ability to choose programmes that are specific to their local area’s needs.

The report provides in-depth and comprehensive evaluations of a large number of early years’ programmes, using the EIF’s rigorous system for rating the strength of evidence of impact. Programmes are conveniently categorised to identify those that have demonstrated clear impact through to those that are yet to exhibit palpable, repeatable results. However, those programmes that are evaluated as having a weaker evidence base are not written off – the EIF standards of evidence can be used as a benchmark for improvement, enabling programmes to be developed to rate more strongly in later evaluations.

The only way public health is going to survive austerity is by proving its worth. High-quality evidence cannot be ignored and commissioners will be forced to take notice of successful interventions and programmes, factoring them into resource allocation. Giving individuals and families the tools to enable them to live long, happy and healthy lives starts in the early years. Public health must continue to focus attention on this key developmental stage as a priority, and keep adding to and building the evidence base to ensure the best programmes survive and spread.