Battle in Print: The problem of early intervention

Martin Earnshaw, 19 October 2010

Frank Field, the Lib-Con coalition’s Poverty Tsar, recently claimed children’s chances of social mobility are effectively determined by the time they are five years old (1). The apparent halt in social mobility over recent years isn’t due to economic factors, but a decline in parenting skills, particularly in poorer families.  

Field believes it‘s no longer sufficient to think giving families an extra £50 a week in tax credits will pull children out of poverty. Instead, we should concentrate on tackling poor parenting skills through early intervention. This means a new version of the Early Years Programme, and a reformed network of Children’s Centres where ‘families of under five can go for help and support’.

The rise of early intervention

Early intervention is the principle that the state should intervene to solve social problems before they manifest themselves. It’s a central component of the coalition’s social policy. Although this principle, baldly stated, may sound like common sense, it rests on a particular view of child development. Early experiences in life may lead children onto a conveyor belt of crime, teenage pregnancy and unemployment. Strictly speaking, one can intervene early at any time: the now out-of-favour ASBO was intended to stop young people before they committed actual crimes. However, the logical tendency of early intervention is to intervene at the earliest possible point.

Early intervention is backed by some impressive-sounding claims from neuroscience. The key feature is the development of the brain. Neuroscientists say the brain is not fully developed at birth. Many features necessary for social development are formed during the first three years of a child’s life, and result from her interaction with caregivers. Just as learning a language is easier in early life, so empathy, emotional restraint and warmth are developed within the first three years. If these critical qualities are not embedded, so the thinking goes, the cost of repairing the damage may be paid later in prison sentences, welfare payments and drug rehabilitation programmes. From a policy point of view, ASBOs, parenting orders and so on are intervening after the damage is done.

The degree of cross party agreement on this issue is striking. New Labour’s flagship Sure Start programme has been retained by the coalition and its budget ring-fenced for a year. Labour MP Graham Allen is chairing a commission to find new ways of funding early intervention initiatives. With cities like Nottingham styling themselves as early intervention cities and David Cameron pledging to invest in the early years, it seems likely initiatives like the Family-Nurse partnership will survive the coming cuts. But shouldn’t we question the assumptions behind early intervention?

Early intervention is considered unassailable because it seems backed by science. But evidence based policy itself is frequently based on assumptions that are fundamentally political.

The political case for early intervention

The political case for early intervention is articulated in the influential book Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizen by Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith:

The politics of late intervention have failed and the alternative must be tried. Every time we hear of the latest stabbing or shooting and the media-political reflex to ‘get tough on crime’ our response should be to get ahead of the short-term problems and rectify the social and cultural influences that have created 17-year-olds who are so lacking in human empathy that they commit such crimes. (2)

Of course, when Allen and Duncan Smith talk about ‘social and cultural influences’ they mean influences beyond the family and parenting. But their primary focus is ‘concentrated areas of deprivation’, where poor parenting is passed on from generation to generation, making poverty a hereditary condition.

Is this simply determinism? The idea of ‘Broken Britain’ Allen and Duncan Smith draw on holds that communities are fragmented. Certainly, some supporters of early intervention like Frank Field are nostalgic for the self-reliant working class community. Implicit is the notion good parenting skills have been lost in poorer families, and intervention can restore them. Allen and Duncan Smith argue that a programme of rolling intervention throughout 0-18 years will break the cycle of dysfunction. If the aim is to reinstitute something like a self-reliant community, then it should be acknowledged this involves imposing something official where informal relations used to exist. Such thinking follows firmly in the footsteps of New Labour.

Another strand of ‘Broken Britain’ is that the two-parent family should be protected, or at least fathers be more involved in children’s lives. The Centre for Social Justice’s new report, The Next Generation, argues early intervention should be family-centred rather than child-centred (3). It should cultivate good relationships between children and the significant adults in their lives. Policy makers do seem to push the wider social agenda. When early intervention is used to support an agenda of social reconstruction, it’s in tension the idea of focusing explicitly on the individual child outside of that family and wider community. 

This consequences of this tension pervades the Allen’s and Duncan Smith’s book. The authors want early intervention to target deprived areas. But they suggest children from non-deprived backgrounds can turn out damaged if experiencing traumatic experiences in the first few years of their lives. In one example, a sixteen year old boy viciously murders two young girls and shows no remorse. The authors claim the boy’s parents are ‘respectable’ and his brother is well adjusted. They say an investigation of the murderer’s past reveals his psychopathy can be traced to his mother leaving him alone for long periods. But problematically for the advocates of early intervention, this seems to have nothing to do with class, poverty, or deprivation. Children who were sent to boarding school, by this logic, might be expected to experience problems forming attachments, as may middle class children whose parents leave them at nursery.

The scientific case for early intervention


The discussion about whether to send children to nursery illustrates how far relying on science to decide what makes good parenting actually problematises parenting per se. Recently, the Guardian quoted Professor Jay Belsky’s research that children under two left in daycare are more likely to be disobedient and aggressive (4). Belsky insists the effects are small and shouldn’t concern parents. Policy makers, however, should be concerned because although the effects are small, they are cumulative. For instance, there could be disruptive consequences if a large group of children who spent their early years in daycare were together in a classroom. Here, a personal and supposedly simple choice about whether to leave one’s child in daycare for a few hours has huge implications for society.

A parallel might be drawn between what’s happening here and what has happened with the issue of child abuse. Forty years ago, child abuse was a well-defined phenomenon. The focus has changed: in the 1960s it was ‘battered baby syndrome’, in the 1980s it became child sexual abuse. However, as Nigel Parton argues, the political response to various scandals has led to a redefinition of child abuse. It’s no longer the battered or abused child, but a framework where all children are potentially at risk (5). The Children’s’ Act of 1989 places a responsibility on local authorities to safeguard children who are ‘suffering or likely to suffer significant harm’.

New Labour’s ‘Every Child Matters’ initiative launched in 2003 gave the state a responsibility to safeguard all children from abuse. The boundaries between children in need, vulnerable children, and children in the population as a whole became increasingly blurred.  For Parton, the Children’s’ Act of 1989 introduced the category of ‘likely to suffer significant harm’ and therefore the idea of the at risk child. It also helped to legitimise a tendency for the medical and human sciences to make judgements about what constituted the welfare of children. This redefinition of child welfare tends to increase the number of children judged as potentially ‘at risk’. The consequence is the growth of Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks that treat all adults as suspected abusers.

A similar logic applies to expertise on child development. The more we think we know about how best to bring up children the less parents know. Just as thirty years ago child abuse was a clearly defined phenomenon, so it was supposed that all but the most incompetent or malevolent could parent. Today, parenting is fraught with uncertainty. The severely abused child is no longer regarded as the exceptional case. The evidence supposedly shows our assumption of parental competence is misplaced.

The problem with early intervention

The coalition has pledged to train 4,000 new health visitors for its refocused Sure Start. Health visitors today have a remit that extends far beyond helping new mothers with their babies. The Healthy Child Manual for 0-5 year olds lists their role as, amongst other things; increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed, combating obesity through limiting portion size and the amount of fat and sugar in food, and ‘supporting parents in getting the balance right between encouraging play and physical activity and minimising the risk of injury’ (6). The justification for the assumption the health visitor is more qualified to make these choices than parents is it’s supported by evidence. But when officials become the authority on child-rearing they inevitably come into conflict with parents.

A few years ago, the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services reported complaints from mothers that health-visitors were starting to assume a policing role, looking for signs of child abuse (7). Early intervention might even infantilise rather than empower parents from deprived backgrounds. Healthy Start, a Department of Health initiative, offers vouchers for fruit and vegetables for parents on low incomes. Recently, however, the government sent out a consultation to professionals to propose ways of limiting the misuse of such vouchers (8). This sounds less like helping poor parents and more like their lack of money to control behaviour. If such parents are unable to make choices about what their children eat, they’re arguably less likely to become self-reliant in future.

Parenting experts, even with the best intentions, undermine family autonomy when they come into the family home. Their focus is inevitably child-centred and not on the family or the community. If policy makers truly want to combat social fragmentation, they must be more critical of the underlying logic of early intervention.


Martin Earnshaw, researcher and editor for the Future Cities Project.


(1) Child poverty five-year-olds are the key to social mobility, Frank Field, Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2010
(2) Allen G and Duncan Smith I (2009). ‘Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’. 2nd Edition, May, Centre for Social Justice, p24
(3) ‘The Next Generation’, Samantha Callan (chair). September 2008, Early Years Commission
(4) The Great Nursery Debate, Guardian, 2 October 2010
(5) Nigel Parton (2006). Safeguarding Childhood: Early intervention and surveillance in a late modern society. London: Palgrave Macmillan
(6) Healthy Child Programme: Pregnancy and the first five years of life, Department of Health
(7) Jean Robinson (2004). AIMS Journal 
(8) Next Steps for Healthy Start, Consultation Document, Department of Health, October 2010

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