Message on first 1,001 days still not heard

Merle Davies
Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Reading a recent edition of CYP Now, I was struck that on almost every page the case was being made, by a range of professionals, about the importance of investing in the early years.

Merle Davies is outgoing director of the Centre for Early Child Development
Merle Davies is outgoing director of the Centre for Early Child Development

The new children's commissioner for England called for a “rocket boost” of support for the early years, Sir Kevan Collins talked about the early years being central to education recovery and, a decade on from his ground-breaking report, Graham Allen wrote about the need for early intervention to have a “fresh sense of purpose”. What is new? The honest answer is absolutely nothing.

For years, the science has been telling us that the period from conception to two is the most important developmental stage in a child's life and can impact on their long-term development and ultimately life chances. Yet 76 per cent of the people who responded to the Royal Foundations “five big questions” didn't recognise the significance of this stage.

So why are we still having to make the case for investment that will provide significant savings to the public purse as well as improve people's lives? For some reason, the message isn't getting through to decision makers and central government who pay lip service to the need to invest early, but don't follow through with adequate funding. Several local authorities are trying to invest in the early years, but are hampered by the high cost of supporting children who failed to get support early on in their lives.

Some investors have funded research to find out what works. In 2015, the National Lottery invested £215m over 10 years in the five A Better Start sites. These are showing green shoots of good practice that will have a long-term impact. For example, peer support workers are getting children help sooner; work with communities around dental health has reduced the incidents of dental caries; and health visitors have delivered new ways of working and enhanced skills to support women with early signs of post-natal depression. Politicians have recognised and adopted these ideas in reviews and recommendations, but still no additional government funding is forthcoming.

It is time to change the narrative. We need to ensure that the 76 per cent of people who did not think this phase of life was important are introduced to the science. Let's start with introducing the whole population to the Brain Story*. Canada have done this using their public broadcast networks. Also, ensuring professionals and the public are aware of why this period in life is so important and understand the long-term impact of not investing as a society in the next generation will help make this an important policy area that voters and broadcasters ask every politician about until it becomes a national conversation.

*Brain Builders – How a child's brain develops through early experiences, NSPCC/Alberta Family Wellness from


  • Merle Davies is outgoing director of the Centre for Early Child Development

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