Last week the Princess of Wales launched the Shaping Us campaign aimed at raising awareness of the importance of early childhood experiences in how we develop physically, socially and emotionally. The campaign starts from the premise that:
“The way we develop, through our experiences, relationships, and surroundings during our early childhood, fundamentally shapes our whole lives. It affects everything from our ability to form relationships and thrive at work, to our mental and physical well-being as adults and the way we parent our own children.”
This will not come as news to anyone who works with young children and their families or who is familiar with a range of research in fields as diverse as child development, health inequalities and economics. In all these areas there are powerful arguments that outcomes are improved, and society gains when resources are invested in meeting the needs of young children and their families. Politically there has been interest in intervening to support parents during those crucial first few years from the Sure Start programmes, Free Early Learning places, Children’s Centres and now Family Hubs.
Despite this interest, and some periods of significant investment, the gap in outcomes between children growing up in poverty and their more advantaged peers is no longer narrowing according to a Nuffield Study. Additionally, health inequalities, many of which start in early childhood, are actually widening. This situation has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, a recruitment and retention crisis in the early years workforce and the closure of early years courses.
Sheffield Hallam University is very active in this space in their civic role and in 2021 opened the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC) in Shirecliffe in Sheffield. The centre has a nursery that provides places for children aged 2-3 years-old who are deemed to be economically disadvantaged and entitled to 15 hours per week in nursery. To date, 80 families have been supported through the centre, and a research study with a sample of parents and carers in 2022 revealed how vital this nursery place was, not just in supporting the child’s development but in meeting the needs of the whole family. Parents reported how isolated they had become during the pandemic and how anxious this had made them about their child’s development. For example, one parent commented:
“He was more like a baby when he first came here, like a baby, you know, and now he doesn’t want his bottle as much and his dummy. He’s not bothered. He will just come and play. And he is becoming a little toddler now, not a baby anymore.”
And another reflected on how the nursery provision had reduced her anxiety:
“It means I get time on my own, because I’m a single parent and I’ve got two children, and Molly is my granddaughter, but I’ve got her full time, so obviously I’ve had no time whatsoever. Nobody takes then overnight or anything, so I don’t get a break. So having this nursery place earlier, for Molly, is just- it’s made me feel better, and I’m not on high alert 24/7.”
Parents and carers also reported that the nursery staff were a great source of support and information about their child’s health and development. They found that through being supported in a non-judgemental way they had gained confidence in the services and were now attending the parents’ breakfast club and other activities at the centre:
“Because of Wendy coming here, I am looking to either going back in to work or applying for a university place. I don’t usually like making friends. I’ve got social anxiety. But quite a few of the mums here that I talk to go to breakfast club now, so I sit with them.”
The opening of the EYCRC has led to Hallam’s involvement with a fascinating project funded through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. This initiative asks cities or city regions to gather a team of eight members drawn from relevant stakeholders to address a problem their area is facing. The team is then supported to work through the root causes of the problem and identify potential solutions. I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the eight from South Yorkshire, chosen by the regional mayor Oliver Coppard and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to look at health inequalities in early years and how they impact negatively across a person’s life. The problem identified is that health inequalities are stark in South Yorkshire and getting worse for young children and their families. Next week we will be joining other teams from across the USA and from Helsinki in New York City to start to develop potential solutions with the support of academics from Harvard and the Bloomberg team. The team recognises that this will be a huge challenge, but we are all committed to looking at how we can build a preventative, supportive system upstream for families and young children rather than waiting to help them out of the river downstream. I am hopeful that the current focus on early years is a window of opportunity for us to address these issues for the long-term. This is an opportunity that we have to grasp.
Professor Sally Pearse
Sally is the Strategic Lead for Early Years at Sheffield Hallam University and the Director of the Early Years Community Research Centre (EYCRC). Since 2017 Sally, has led the work with early years colleagues from across South Yorkshire to develop a range of collaborative projects. These have included a £1million project, funded through the DfE Early Outcomes Fund to transform the regions speech, language and communication services and the development of the EYCRC in Sheffield. The project is now delivering nursery places and family support in an area of social and economic challenge.