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Doreen Massey on the case for a second stage of ‘early intervention’ in young people’s lives

Our national newspapers regularly carry front page stories about knife crime, self-harm in young people, depression and suicide, domestic violence and murder. Last Saturday’s edition of The Times for example splashed: ‘Depression Overtakes Obesity on GP List of Most Common Illnesses.’ With the roots of such issues often found in early childhood experiences, the question immediately arises how best do we tackle it all?

This Thursday in a debate in the House of Lords, I will suggest that we are missing opportunities to intervene more effectively and that the early stages of childhood are not the whole story. Adolescence is a time when young people can turn their lives around and, with appropriate intervention and support, contribute energy and ideas.

Research and experience tells us that young children who are nurtured do better generally than those who are not. Nurture means tending to health needs, good nutrition, being talked to and played with, encouraged to learn and be active.

Some children do not have these advantages. Whether through inadequate parenting or care, or social determinants like poor housing and violence. Or indeed, some combination of both. Parents or carers living in poverty and deprivation may have heavy pressures on their time and energy.

Similarly important issues relate to mental health, where a parent or carer’s problems can impact on a child. As we know, good mental health is a keystone to preventing obesity or substance misuse, improving educational achievement, and ensuring healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Many of the possibilities for personal growth begin in the communities in which people live. So the government should consider more closely how increased spending on childcare and early education empowers all families and children to thrive and do well. Initiatives which respectfully involve communities, parents, carers and children from the start are often more likely to have impact.

This was clear with the teenage pregnancy strategy, with the latter halving teen pregnancy rates in the course of a decade. The recent decimation however, of the Sure Start programme of children’s centres in favour of broader ‘hubs’ is a retrograde step. Putting money into proven successes would be preferable to more selective and complex schemes.

Recent fiascos in tax and welfare reforms have left people worse off. Support for early years’ education is admirable, but we know that many children and families are still missing out. 40% of disadvantaged two year olds are entitled to 570 hours of government funded childcare a year. But why not all two year olds?

The system is confusing, with some providers struggling to survive costs and huge geographical gaps exist. For example, good development of disadvantaged 5 year olds in the London Borough of Lewisham is 71% but only 46% in the city of York. Such development should not be a lottery if we are serious about social mobility.

But early years is not the only key time in young people’s lives, with The Lancet recently stating: “we have come to new understandings of adolescence as a critical phase in life for achieving human potential.” Frequently spoken of in relation to ‘problems’, most adolescents are creative, hard-working and healthy. A body of research however, tell us they are affected by major brain changes – in relation to risky behaviour, resilience and the perils and promise of technology. UNICEF calls these developments ‘a second window of opportunity’.

I know from personal experience and observation that it is important to engage young people in decision making about their hopes and aspirations, and the development of services to support them. Many NGOs are active in this field, and have youth panels to help guide organisational aims. Some police forces have engaged youngsters who are ‘in trouble’ in discussing problems and solutions. And there are many school councils. But it is by embedding the potential for change into the lives of communities that interventions will succeed.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer

Published 30th October 2018

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