Early intervention is not enough

Posted on19th Jan 2011

Today's new report on early interventions in education is welcome, but Helen Barnard has three nagging doubts.

Graham Allen's early intervention report (PDF) is out today. It makes a very important contribution to promoting evidence-based policy and effective interventions to produce better outcomes for children. The study builds on the earlier Frank Field report, continuing to develop a strong argument for intervening early in children's lives, solving problems before they reach school. There is good evidence that well-designed, effectively delivered, properly funded early interventions make an enormous difference to children's development and attainment. Today's report is solid and very welcome, bringing together evidence about the types of early interventions that work.

So what's not to like? I have three nagging worries about the story that seems to be developing in these different reports: essentially that whatever funding is available should be focused on the first few years of children's lives and specifically on improving parenting practices.

The first point is that our education research shows that, while the attainment gap between richer and poorer children is big by the time they are three, it keeps widening right up until 14. Children's very early experiences are important but are not the only factor – closing the attainment gap and breaking the link between family background and educational outcomes will take action well beyond the age of three. Graham Allen's report reflects this, highlighting intervention programmes from ages 0–18. However, much of the discussion surrounding it suggests that early intervention means under-3s. Given the immense pressure on funding at the moment, this matters if it means, even unintentionally, that funding for older age groups is downgraded.

Second, much of the early intervention toolkit tends to consist of fairly intensive services delivered to relatively small groups. Tackling child poverty and the rich-poor attainment gap requires significant changes to the outcomes of around 20% of the population – not just the bottom 5%. The report does include programmes for broader groups of children. However the evidence tends to be stronger for smaller scale, more intensive work. The plan to ensure that action takes place consistently across the country and can be funded on the scale required is also less convincing than the rest of the report.

The longstanding EPPE study (PDF) has shown both the cumulative effect of children's experiences and the power of high quality universal services. It demonstrates that having a good home learning environment in the early years can compensate for going to a poor quality pre-school. However, going to a good quality pre-school can also compensate for having a poor quality home learning environment. And going to an effective primary school can make up for poor quality pre-schooling. But the strongest effect comes from putting good quality experiences together. Going to a high quality pre-school plus an effective primary school has an enormous effect, really balancing out differences by family background. Importantly, the report calls for improved qualifications among the early years workforce, but says nothing about how to pay for it. Likewise, the discussion of funding seems to ignore the potential impact on families of the very broad cuts currently taking place in local authority, welfare and other budgets.

My third concern is about the wider environment that children are growing up in. Giving them the best possible parenting and development opportunities in the first three years is obviously vital. However, by itself that won't change the structure of opportunities available to them as they get older. In-work poverty has become the major child poverty challenge of recent years, with no signs of any real progress. Our labour market and recurrent poverty research suggests that a key reason for this is the current structure of the labour market. Too many people get stuck in the 'peripheral labour market' – low paid, insecure jobs with little chance for progression. Once they are there it is very difficult to move into the 'core labour market' – better paid, more secure jobs that can lead somewhere. If the early intervention push works, those people might start coming in with a better grounding in terms of early development. But unless we take serious steps to ensure that there are real routes to good work, we may be in for a big disappointment in the effect on child poverty.