Early intervention: saving children from their future?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

Despite savage public spending cuts, one scheme the coalition has enthusiastically retained is New Labour’s flagship nursery scheme Surestart. Its philosophy of early intervention, the idea that social problems should be prevented before they happen, is popular with policy makers across the political divide. Experts claim early intervention can break the intergenerational cycle of poor parenting, antisocial behaviour and underachievement, relieving the long-term burden on remedial policies such as prisons, policing, drug rehabilitation and benefits. Academic evidence, most fashionably neuroscience, is said to prove that the first three years of a child’s life are its most crucial. Whether it’s brain development or emotional well being, everyone seems to agree that what happens to young children inevitably has a huge impact on their life chances. But does such intervention really work, and given the intrusion it involves into family life, is it legitimate?

Certainly, this approach gives a green light to a wide-range of intensive initiatives: third party ‘experts’ are given carte blanche to intervene in families, even to try to shape children’s emotional lives. This is one arena where the ‘Nanny State’ seems to be uncontroversial. For all its scientific language, however, the theory behind early intervention often appears to justify the pet concerns of whichever policy wonks pick it up. For the Centre for Social Justice, for example, it underpins a defence of the two-parent family. For Demos, it shows that family form is unimportant as long as children are subject to the right influences.

But shouldn’t we question the core assumptions behind early intervention? Can we really tackle the social problems of tomorrow by sorting out the children of today? Critics argue it is over-deterministic to insist future actions and outcomes are fixed at such a young age. If we label certain parenting styles as dysfunctional and inevitably doomed to produce problem citizens, don’t we diminish individuals’ capacity to take responsibility for themselves in adulthood? Does such a predictive approach allow evasion of responsibility for antisocial actions in later life (lack of parental love made me do it, guv)? And can inequality and deprivation really be explained away so easily (it’s not the system that makes you poor, it’s poor parenting we should blame)? Might early intervention undermine the very idea of the social by privileging outside expert knowledge over the potentially positive influence of families and other adults in the children’s own communities?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Samantha Callan
chairman-in-residence for family, early years and mental health, Centre for Social Justice

Naomi Eisenstadt
senior research fellow, education and social policy, University of Oxford; former director, SureStart and Social Exclusion Task Force

Dr Dimitra Hartas
associate professor, special education and disability, University of Warwick; author, The Right to Childhoods: critical perspectives on rights, difference and knowledge in a transient world

Dr Stuart Waiton
lecturer in sociology and criminology, Abertay University; author, Snobs' Law: criminalising football fans in an age of intolerance

Martin Earnshaw
co-editor Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated; chair, IoI Social Policy Forum

Produced by
Martin Earnshaw co-editor Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated; chair, IoI Social Policy Forum
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