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Opinion: The first three years of life are crucial in influencing a child's future

We have irrefutable evidence that children’s social and family circumstances impact on their life chances, but we also know how to maximise their potential.

Image: Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock

LAST WEEK OVER 70,000 children began national school for the first time. At first glance, each of these children appears to be starting out from the same point; their futures identical, blank canvases of unwritten possibilities. And yet, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) report published recently demonstrates that the paths of these four and five-year-olds into higher education can already be predicted by the area in which they live.

According to the report, those from disadvantaged urban areas in particular are significantly less likely to go on to further education: 99% of young people in Dublin 6 go on to third level for example, compared to just 15% in Dublin 17. If nothing changes, out of a class of 25 junior infants starting last week in Dublin 17, only four will go on to third level – while in a class of the same size in Dublin 6, all of them are likely to do so.

The first three years of life 

This reflects not only a waste of human talent and potential, but a fundamental failure to ensure equality of opportunity for all of our children and young people. We need to go back to the point at which children first begin to fall behind, which is often before they even enter a classroom. While valuable interventions can be made at any stage of the life course, we know that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial in influencing a host of life outcomes, educational and otherwise. In her response to the report, the Minister for Education herself cited the early years as ‘critical’.

By the start of school, children from lower income homes can be up to 18 months behind in language development, vocabulary and communication skills. We know that efforts by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) to develop the quality of provision of early years care and education have, so far, faltered. Early access to evidence-informed family support services is also patchy, another postcode lottery. According to our Constitution, the State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as is practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights.

Yet research repeatedly shows us what is entirely practicable is not being done. We know that there are long-term economic and social costs associated with these failures to prevent the effects of disadvantage taking hold. Our State has a duty under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to realise the rights of these children and we have a moral responsibility as a society to provide every child with equitable opportunities and life chances.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity

The landscape of child and family services in Ireland is changing rapidly. In the new Child and Family Agency (Tusla) we have for the first time a dedicated State agency responsible for improving well-being and outcomes for children; government and philanthropy have already supported and implemented a number of early intervention initiatives, including the Area-Based Childhood (ABC) Programme and the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) Programme; and we have strong policy commitments to prevention and earlier intervention from government in the recent national policy framework for children and young people (2014-2020), and the framework for improved health and well-being (2013 -2025).

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These changes represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of child and family services for the better, so that in years to come we will not be looking at more statistics of unacceptable inequality like those in the HEA report. It is critical that this current window of opportunity is not squandered and that the progress made to date is consolidated and built upon by embedding the principle and practise of early intervention across all government departments and agencies concerned with children, so that services – and attitudes – are realigned from a remedial, crisis-driven approach to a preventative one.

We have irrefutable evidence that children’s social and family circumstances impact on their life chances; we also know what it takes to maximise their potential to achieve and be healthy, active citizens. And we have the skills and competence to deliver these strategies, together with experience in implementing a range of evidence informed services including family supports; literacy and language development programmes; parent education and health initiatives – all of which can enable the early identification of need and targeted supports where they are required. What we lack is government commitment to realign resources over time to prioritise preventive approaches rather than crisis-driven and fragmented services.

Marian Quinn is the Chair of the Prevention and Early Intervention Network. She is also the CEO of the Childhood Development Initiative and a Board member for both the Children’s Hospital Group and the Airfield Trust. 

Opinion: The disparity in third level participation should make us all angry

Read: 99% of young adults in D6 go to college, just 15% in D17


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