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A crucial time

The first few years of a child’s life are of course a time of rapid brain growth. The very early years are also crucial for the brain’s plasticity. Plasticity refers to the brain’s natural ability to change by reorganising neural pathways based on new experiences. Plasticity is very high during the early years of a child’s life, but from then on it falls very rapidly. As the maturing brain becomes more specialised to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganising and adapting. As the brain prunes away the circuits that are not used, those that are used become stronger and increasingly difficult to alter over time. Declining plasticity means it is easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than it is to rewire parts of its circuitry in later years. In other words by ensuring positive conditions for healthy development are in place early, we can reduce the risk of paying more later in the form of lost potential and health care.

Longitudinal studies find that outcomes in the early years have a strong relationship with later life outcomes. Earlier attainment has been shown to play a big role in affecting later childhood outcomes, making substantial changes much more difficult to achieve as children grow up. By age 11, attainment at age seven (as measured in Key Stage 1 assessment results) explains over 60% of the gap in attainment between the poorest and the richest and the pattern is very similar at ages 14 and 16. This emphasises the importance of closing the gaps in attainment at an earlier stage.

In order to put forward a strategy to eliminate these gaps, it is crucial to analyse the evidence in order to understand what causes them to emerge in the first place.

The role of parents and families

Whilst the factors influencing children’s outcomes over the life course change, the role of parents and families is consistent throughout.  All the evidence shows parents to be the main influence on their children’s outcomes in the early years.

Life chances begin to be determined in pregnancy. A healthy pregnancy and a strong emotional bond (known as attachment) between parents and the baby in the first few months can place a child on the road to success. Indeed, early attachment to the baby, parental warmth and boundary-setting and providing a home environment where learning is important have been shown to be the key factors influencing a child’s life chances and they can be more important than income or class background.

We tend to focus on schools as the mechanism for closing the gaps between richer and poorer children because the Government can act most easily to change schools. But we must follow the evidence. The child’s environment in the preschool years is more important than the schools they attend. Crucially, schools simply do not close the early ability gaps that emerge between richer and poorer children. The more we do to close the gap very early on, the less pressure there will be on schools to narrow the gap later.

Frank Field, Lord Field of Birkenhead