Royal campaign won’t work unless early years funding is viewed as critical infrastructure

Published on 1 March 2023

Nicholas Nisbett

Research Fellow

Last month in the UK, the Princess of Wales launched a campaign labelled ‘Shaping Us’ to focus on the importance of early childhood.  She is right to focus on the early years. It’s a critical period in which we lay down the foundations for the rest of our lives.

Good nutrition in this period, support for breastfeeding, play and early education have all been linked to outcomes later in life such as better health, lower rates of obesity and NCDs and even higher educational achievement and income.

The Princess of Wales said: “These are the most preventative years. By focusing our collective time, energy, and resources to build a supportive, nurturing world around the youngest members of our society and those caring for them, we can make a huge difference to the health and happiness of generations to come.”

The Princess of Wales’s analysis is a systemic one, in that she outlines how inadequate support to early childhood can be traced to some of the most trenchant social and medical problems.  Understandably, the Princess avoids the politics of childhood nurture, only hinting at the importance of maintaining support “in these difficult times”.

The political reality of early years support is that in the UK and in other countries where IDS works we find funding and initiatives focused on children’s centres waxing and waning due to different political ideologies. This is despite very strong economic and other evidence that shows how investment in this period has huge returns (as much as £13 for every £1 spent) and saves public money over the longer term.

Importance of children centres

In the UK, we borrowed from the experience of the US’ ‘Head Start’ programme to build a national network of ‘Sure Start’ children’s centres.  In 2019 the esteemed economic think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the Sure Start programme had reduced hospital admissions and had saved millions of pounds for the NHS.

But the Sure Start programme has suffered badly over a decade of austerity (reduced public spending) policies in the UK, with 60 percent cuts to budgets resulting in many children’s centres closing or stripping back services.  As the Guardian reports, the ‘pioneering’ Children’s Centre in Corby: a centre of excellence in ‘wraparound care’ for deprived families and their children, is now facing closing due to local authority cuts.

In India, despite ‘universalisation’ of the national  programme of children’s centres, or ‘anganwadis’, following a sustained campaign by Right to Food activists in the early 2000s, analysis of the scheme, which relaunched and rebranded last year as Mission POSHAN 2.0 (poshan is the Hindi word for nutrition), showed a 15 percent drop in beneficiaries and budgets failing to keep up with the high cost of food (one of the key services the centres provide is food rations for children).

Children’s centres worldwide fulfil a number of different roles including advising expectant and new parents on issues such as breastfeeding, weaning and other aspects of diet.  Diet related diseases now contribute the greatest burden of disease worldwide – i.e. more people die from poor diet than anything else.  They are an essential part of society and this early years provision.

Reframing early years provision as national infrastructure

One way to support such outcomes is to reframe early years provision as part of key national infrastructure.  This might sound odd for those used to thinking of infrastructure as pipes, roads and airports, but social infrastructure has become a touchstone political issue supported by politicians such as President Biden in the US.  It is usually understood to include investment in things like childcare, or the physical spaces that enable people to get together and perform social functions such as education or community work, popularised in books such as Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People.

Rethink required

We would go further: spaces and places are important, but Children’s centres like Sure Start or India’s Anganwadi centres are more than the actual buildings: social infrastructure ultimately means nurturing better relationships between people, whether between health workers and the people they serve or between members of a family. It also includes the ideas and beliefs that drive the operation of that infrastructure; and motivate people to contribute to broader public outcomes as health, nutrition and children’s workers.

Here our research shows that the state has a role, but not always a positive one: poorly designed public health interventions which ‘responsibilitise’ families, particularly mothers, for wider societal failings such as deprivation in housing—or which do nothing to tackle the wider commercial food environments currently swamping families with unhealthy foods—are not contributing to a wider infrastructure of nurture supporting the kinds of lifelong outcomes envisaged by the Princess.

To achieve the Princess’ goals requires a rethink…and a broadening of infrastructure to include all these human and social dimensions. With the returns on this investment clearly evidenced, a bold new move by the UK or any other government would be to reclassify such social spending with a well-evidenced return to society as ‘capital’ spending rather than ‘revenue’ spending. Such classes of spending are subject to lowered fiscal constraints – not subject to government caps on long-term borrowing because of the guaranteed return.  Only then will a real infrastructure of nurture become viable and sustainable over political election cycles.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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