The Labour government, the coalition government and now the current Conservative government have all expressed commitments to ensure children get the best start in life. New developments in brain research - and particularly current understanding about the rapid changes in brain physiology and chemistry in the first three years of life - have reinforced the arguments for greater investments in parenting education, childcare and early education.
However, there has been an unmanaged risk in this emphasis on the early years: a failure to acknowledge that while a good start in life is protective of future risks, it is not inoculation. A good start in life does not guarantee a good adult life, nor does a poor start in life guarantee poor outcomes in the future. In the case of a good start, it lowers the odds on future problems, but cannot eliminate future risks. Likewise, a poor start rarely predicts with 100 per cent accuracy future disadvantage. It just reduces the odds on good outcomes.
An unintended consequence of the emphasis on early years has been a failure to consider the importance of later childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and to examine the kind of cross-cutting policy approaches that have informed the early years debate. In January this year, I published Shifting the Curve, a report for Scotland's First Minister on reducing poverty. One of three key themes covered in the report is the life chances of young people. The policy debates concerning young people and poverty have recently been centred on widening access to university for young people from less advantaged backgrounds. Indeed, a recent report by the Sutton Trust found that Scotland, despite maintaining free tuition fees, has failed to improve on the proportion of young people from poorer backgrounds entering the elite Scottish universities.
Mid-to-late teens is the period in life when young people are probably exposed to the greatest risks; it is a period when parents have less control and when success or failure at school has life-long consequences. While both England and Scotland have greatly expanded apprenticeship opportunities, the approach to this crucial period in life seems to be unhelpfully binary: university or entry into low paid work, with little chance of advancement.
The key policy impetus for young people seems to revolve around higher education or employment, with little discussion of health, leisure, transport or indeed the social structures that could help young people develop the agency needed to navigate this difficult time. Most importantly, we don't have the evidence base to know what works for young people. There is concern about social media, over-sexualisation, increasing levels of mental health problems and a range of other issues of crucial concern to this group, but no coherent review of the literature that pulls together what we know, what we don't know and what possible policy routes should be explored.
The recommendation in Shifting the Curve asks for a comprehensive review of what we know about the state of the nation's young people. This means looking in detail at what we know about post-school destinations, healthy and unhealthy behaviours, and relationships with parents, teachers and the wider community. For those young people who are in work, what are the rates of pay, is training available, are there routes to advancement? It will be particularly important to look at these issues through the lens of family income, gender and minority ethnic group status.
The language of early intervention has been used interchangeably with the narrative on early years. No one would argue against the importance of maximizing the quality of early experience, and over the years we have developed a vast array of information on what works in early years. But shouldn't we consider every period of childhood important? What is needed now is a "second chance" narrative that calls for early intervention for older children and young adults.
The current discourse on social mobility seems to assume that success in education is the key, and it is vitally important, but will never be the answer for all children and young people. Moreover, we know from recent research from the Early Intervention Foundation that social and emotional skills are at least as important as cognitive ability in determining adult wellbeing. We need a higher wage economy at all levels, a wider range of choices for young people and more flexibility in the system for changing trajectories. The key test will be when parents and young people themselves feel positive about non-academic as well as academic routes. We may make more progress on that journey if we spent some time understanding the route map.
Naomi Eisenstadt is senior research fellow at the University of Oxford