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The start of an important conversation: how do we best support parents during children's early years?


27 Nov 2020

Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on some of the key findings from the Royal Foundation's ‘5 Big Questions’ survey. How do we make good on parents’ expectations and concerns about the early years?

It was a privilege to attend – virtually, of course – the launch today of the Royal’s Foundations ‘5 Big Questions’ report on how the public views early childhood, spearheaded by the Duchess of Cambridge.

As the Duchess said today, we are all seeking ‘not a quick win but a big win’ for a happier and healthier society. ‘I have seen how positive, protective factors in the early years can play a critical role in shaping our futures,’ she said. Her work, supported by a panel of expert advisors, provides an invaluable opportunity to highlight the importance of children’s issues, and the vital role of services and professionals who work with and alongside children facing extra challenges in life. I wholeheartedly endorse her vision for ‘generational’ change, so that communities up and down the country come to receive – and ultimately to expect – more, and more effective, support for children and young people facing extra risks to their development and wellbeing as they grow up.

It is tremendously exciting to see the huge response that the Duchess’s survey has been able to elicit, with research organisation Ipsos MORI saying they’ve ‘never seen a response like it’. While the mission of many of us in our early intervention community is to improve the lives of children and young people, we know that parents and families are the vital gatekeepers. Whether providing support to children, or working with couples and families on aspects of parenting, relationships or family stress, public services rely on willing consent and participation. Understanding how parents, caregivers and others think and feel about children’s development – their own and others’ – is a vital part of designing support and services that stand a better chance of being welcomed and widely used. 

With this in mind, it was encouraging to see that almost nine in 10 parents (88%) recognise that development before age 5 is influenced by their environment, and 83% think it is important to know about children’s brain and mind development during this period. There is always more to do, to successfully make the case to the public or to political leaders on policy change, but this data provides a clear reflection of the strong interest that parents across the country have in supporting children to grow up well. 

Collectively, we need to make good on parents’ expectations and concerns. The Royal Foundation’s report underlines the need for parents to feel able to reach out for help, and not to feel judged. It’s critical for all of us working in or supporting vital public services to ensure that a range of effective interventions are available, and that parents and families are aware of these options, and feel comfortable accessing the support they need. One important step we can all take here is helping services to use and share the evidence of what works, to inform and reassure parents and families about the benefits of different forms of support. 

Working at the line where research meets policymaking, I know it can be challenging advocating for change in the way government policy and public money is used to support children and families. Children’s policy can sometimes struggle to cut through in public debate – in the way that issues around jobs, education or immigration might do – and within Whitehall, responsibility for policy relating to children and families is split between several departments. 

Yet policies that work to support families with young children – from health visiting and children’s centres or family hubs through to free school meals and childcare entitlements – may be, for many people, some of the most tangible and downright useful of all government policies. It is encouraging and very welcome to see the Duchess using her profile and passion to bring extra attention to the importance of supporting families during their children’s crucial early years. 

What’s particularly significant and exciting about the Duchess’s work is its focus on long-term results, with payoffs for individuals and society as a whole – as she said earlier this week, ‘It’s not just about happy, healthy children. This is for lifelong consequences and outcomes.’ I’ve talked in the past about the pitfalls of short-term, ‘shiny new thing’ policymaking. While there will always be a need for policies and services to address immediate crises, there is an opportunity to invest in support for young children and new parents that will provide benefits years down the line, not just for those individuals but for the communities they live in as well. Stoke-on-Trent city director Jon Rouse put this challenge to the audience at today's launch: how do we now embed this more deeply? ‘This is the most important stage in terms of investment in our lives,’ he argued. ‘It will make the biggest difference in life chances and ultimately society.’

As the Duchess says, today’s report is just the start of a conversation about how our society cares for children and families – but what an important conversation it is. 

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.