Early years support sets a child up for life. It should be a national priority | Alice O’Keeffe

In these precarious times, we need something even more ambitious than Sure Start

My oldest son is turning 10 this week, and he’ll be celebrating with his mates in our local gaming emporium. I, meanwhile, will be allowing myself a misty-eyed look back at a decade of being a parent: the hits, the misses. It seems like a natural time to take stock. What have the last 10 years taught me?

One thing I wish I’d understood more fully at the beginning is the importance – and the fleeting nature – of those tender, challenging early years. Like many modern parents, I embarked on the most important job of my life with 100% enthusiasm but zero knowledge or experience. I’d spent my entire life, in fact, training for something completely different: I knew how to pass exams; I knew how to talk my way into a profession (and out of one); I had been trained from childhood to value academic achievement and professional success. I was completely bemused and befuddled to find myself trapped in my flat, tending to the needs of a small, speechless human.

Fortunately, my son and I had a loving and supportive family. But even so things were tough: financially tough, emotionally tough. Becoming a parent brings up deeply buried experiences from the past, and requires that you understand yourself and your own needs in a whole new way. At the same time, it presents urgent practical challenges. It’s difficult to focus on caring for your baby when you’re worried about how to pay the rent. It’s hard to cultivate the patience required to understand a baby’s needs when you are worrying about when, how and if to go back to work. Our society expects far too much of parents, and offers them woefully little support. Too often, our children pay the price.

Our family muddled through, and emerged relatively unscathed (so far! As all parents know, pride comes before a fall). But the experience left me with some big questions about our priorities as a society. Where is the help for new parents, from the government, from policymakers, from either the right or the left? Why are we so ill-prepared for parenthood by the education system? Where is the recognition that raising happy, healthy humans is one of the most important of our collective duties?

These questions seem all the more pressing now, as we confront an epidemic of poor mental health among children. While schools are investing in additional mental health provision to deal with the crisis, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about why so many are becoming unwell. The evidence is that the early years of a child’s life are crucial in establishing good mental health and emotional resilience. This is when our brains are formed – and if parents are stressed, depressed or distracted at this crucial time it can have an impact that lasts a lifetime. Even more than happened a decade ago, people becoming parents today face a toxic cocktail of unaffordable housing and a stagnating economy, a lack of services, huge pressure to return to full-time work, and a long-running lack of investment in early years provision. These are not – to put it mildly – optimal conditions in which to raise a child.

New Labour at least recognised the importance of the early years. When I had a difficult day with my son a decade ago, I could drop in to my local centre for a baby singing class, or to consult a health visitor or a breastfeeding consultant or, later, access speech therapy services. Most new parents now don’t have that luxury. The Sutton Trust recently found that, since 2010, 1,000 Sure Start centres – more than 30% – have closed, and those that remain offer a much more limited range of services. The tragedy is that only now is evidence really starting to emerge of the long-term impact of Sure Start. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that Sure Start centres significantly reduced hospital admissions up to the age of 11. More generally, research by the OECD showed that 15-year-olds who had access to good early-years education outperformed students who had not, with disadvantaged children benefitting the most.

In the face of all the evidence, the Conservatives only ever mention the early years in terms of “getting parents back to work”. David Cameron’s introduction of 30 “free” hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds was underfunded, and has led to the closure of many smaller childcare providers. It also failed to recognise that 30 hours a week in childcare is not what parents want: in study after study, they say they want to work part-time in order to spend more time with their children. Neither is it in the best interests of most three- and four-year-olds – particularly as providers are often not able to offer the responsive one-to-one attention that such young children need. This is a sector that is woefully undervalued: pay is so low that almost half of the early-years workforce receive benefits. Early-years workers are themselves often stressed, with a quarter saying they are considering leaving the sector.

What we need, to ensure the mental and physical health of future generations, is something far more radical and far-reaching than Sure Start – nothing less than a revolution in public policy on the early years. We need parenting classes for girls and – crucially – boys built in to the education system; and psychological support for all new parents, to stop damaging patterns being repeated. Of course, we need more flexible working, for both men and women, and more affordable housing. As I celebrate our 10-year milestone this week, this will be my (vicarious) birthday wish.

• Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist and the author of On the Up

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Alice O'Keeffe

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