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Stacking up the evidence

 19 October 2010

Earlier today Frank Field MP spoke at the Policy Exchange conference on Child Poverty. Here is an extract of what he said:

“Charles Deforges once memorably wrote that we know as much about parental involvement affecting pupils' achievements now as Sir Isaac Newton knew about motion when he devised his laws in the seventeenth century. It took 300 years before theory was put into successful practice of landing a man on the moon. Mankind cannot afford to wait for a similar revolution in child nurturing.

Since the Review was established in June I have been constantly reading the evidence concerning the importance of the early years, and I have been glad to meet many of the researchers who have undertaken this work. It has been a revealing, astounding and challenging few months.

Since the dawn of time it has been obvious that children will thrive if their first years of life are characterised by loving families who sense the importance of nurturing. Through my reading what has become obvious is that a good start in life is not only beneficial, but it is crucial for children, if they are to achieve their best selves.

Leon Feinstein has completed work on the diverging abilities of children under five years and has shown how these gaps remain throughout the school years. He is able to predict from age 5 where pupils will end up when they complete their formal schooling. On average children from poorer homes achieve lower levels of attainment when compared to their richer peers.

It is around this research that the Review has built up the index of life chances, which will be detailed in our final report. The index will seek to monitor the improvements in children’s skills at age 5, with the idea that Governments will drive policy so as to reach certain benchmarks over time.

Identifying the key drivers which lead to poor attainment in the early years is only the first step. The next logical step is to work out how we can intervene to improve children’s life chances, and particularly those of the poorest children, so that we make the attainments of five year olds more equal across the income distribution.

Evidence of what works in the UK is becoming more clear as evaluations proceed and results are published. For example the National Evaluation of Sure Start has shown that Sure Start has had a positive impact for children across the income gradient; the Oxford University EPPE study shows that quality pre-school provision reduces the impact of normal social disadvantage; and, there is good early evidence from the Family Intervention Project, the Incredible Years and the Triple P parenting programme.

We are also drawing on studies from overseas, particularly from Scandinavia and the USA, which point to successful outcomes for disadvantaged children. We have already begun drawing on these relevant findings to innovate in this country such programmes as the Family Nurse Partnership.

This brings me back to Charles Deforges. We know enough about what works to begin to make a real difference to poorer children’s lives.

We know that this is exactly the right area in which we should be working. We know that the key drivers of good outcomes are a good home learning environment, the availability of good quality childcare, and good maternal mental health.

The major task after tomorrow’s Spending Review is to ensure that whatever budgets are decided the relevant ones maximise increasing the life chances of the poorest 30 per cent of children when they start school.”