• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Tuesday 19th July, 2011

Response to the response

Four reviews. One response. Two more reviews promised. There has been a lot of reflection on how to better support child development since the Coalition Government was formed 12 months ago.Today, Education and Health Ministers Sarah Teather and Anne Milton published their reaction to the reviews commissioned from Labour MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen, Action for Children Chief Clare Tickell and LSE Professor Eileen Munro (the 19th of July, 2011). The detail is set out in Supporting Families in the Foundation Years.Perhaps the most significant aspect of the publication is its’ authors. The drive for change has been coming from Treasury, Number 10 and the Department of Work and Pensions. But it is the owners of children’s policy, Education and Health that have provided the primary reaction. This may or may not signal future priorities.The four reviews produced a lot of requests for action and it is impossible for Government to respond favourably to all of them. The initial reaction is broad. Inevitably it backs the things to which Government is already committed, the expansion of Family Nurse Partnership for example. There is strong backing for more information for parents, a better trained workforce and a shift of resources towards the most disadvantaged. There is nothing here to argue against. But the aspirations may be too broad to be useful, and some of the things that matter most may get shunted down the list of priorities.My contribution to these reviews, a lot with Allen and a little with Munro and Field, has been a call for a higher standard of evidence. The Government response indicates a shift in the right direction. But it is far from all embracing perhaps reflecting the anti-body reaction that this injection of science has produced.Maybe Teather and Milton have judged this right. Interventions selected by a high standard of evidence are potentially part of the solution to impairments to children’s health and development. They are not the entire solution. And we have to further test the potential. As long as evidence-based programmes and policies are not being kicked into the long grass, to borrow a favourite Whitehall phrase, then we are doing well.The test will be the extent to which Government backs or at least does not impede the creation of an Early Intervention Foundation to provide independent standards of evidence, identify programmes and policies that pass muster and support new financing arrangements to see if the potential benefit to children can be realised.One recognises in Teather and Milton’s report the cleft that Government must stand over. One line takes us away from telling local authorities what to do. The other line demands that we all do one or two things to improve the lot of England’s children.The join requires proper experimentation at a local level, and an honest sharing of results so that others can pick up what is successful. Science, truth and embracing failure are necessary ingredients to make this work.The cleft also highlights the need to develop a social contract regarding child development. Little is to be gained by telling people what to do. Nobody has ‘a’ solution to the ills visited upon our children. We still lack consensus about what we agree on, what we need to learn and how we can test innovation.The glaring gap in both the reviews and the government response is innovation through subtraction. Everyone wants to add (in a time of economic adversity). Nobody wants to acknowledge that some progress depends on taking away that which is harmful (and testing the extent of its harm along the way).The great triumph of this process, the reviews and the response, has been the way it has crossed party political interests. Child development is not going to be enhanced by voting left, right or middle. The political parties can help by approaching child development in a non-partisan manner. That reviews were commissioned from two Labour MPs and the response came from the Coalition parties is a significant step in the right direction.

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