Why we must avoid city investment in early intervention

By suggesting early years are open for market investment, we may risk further commodification of childhood in the UK -- where children are seen merely in terms of the economic benefits they offer us.
Laura Bradley
7 August 2011

This post is a response to Graham Allen's piece, Early intervention for children pays; so let's ask the market to invest, published by ourKingdom last week.

It is clear that as a nation we need to rebalance our expenditure towards early years and the recent reports such as those by Graham Allen and Frank Field are extremely important in bringing attention to this. But by focusing on the financial dividends of our investments in early we are increasingly framing childhood in economic terms. In my view, this is becoming an increasing problem in the way we approach early years. Whilst many contributions to this debate have highlighted some important challenges on the issues associated with private investment, few are questioning what it would mean for how we perceive childhood as a nation.  

The argument that the early years are critical for the future of an individual has already been won and there has been a growing political consensus on the issue. We now have compelling evidence which shows us that to produce the happy and productive citizens of the future we must meet their needs in the first years of life. This has motivated a move towards a ‘social investment’ model of social policy which has been increasingly pursued by states, where future impacts on employment, crime and other benefits to wider society trigger a range of initiatives aimed at improving the citizens and society of tomorrow.  The ‘social investment state’ was seen to epitomise the Third Way and later EU social policy – where the expected individual and social dividends instigated a number of key early years initiatives.  This has provided governments with a narrative on why issues such as eradicating child poverty and investing in universal programmes such as Sure Start is for the good of everyone, not just those families with higher needs.

Whilst there are important reasons for recognising the wider societal benefits of investing in children and using it as a way to incentivise state investment, it is perhaps one step far to place this area into the hands of private investors. By suggesting early years are open for market investment we may risk further commodification of childhood in the UK, where children are seen  merely in terms of the economic benefits they offer us. The past governments obsession with targets and the testing of children is one side effect of a social investment model which wants to see clear and measureable results which indicate how ‘productive’ children might be in the future. Although rigorous standards are vital for ensuring quality is maintained in educational settings, placing early years within an investment framework could lead to an ever increasing array of measures and goals children and organisations must achieve in order to prove the effectiveness of a particular programme or service.  

There are many very welcome philanthropic activities which emerge from the private sector’s efforts to embrace corporate responsibility but there is an argument for keeping this separate from the motive of profit. Graham Allen’s piece already raises the need for a cautious approach to bringing financial interest into the realm of early years but I would argue that we should actively avoid it. Greater support for innovative approaches to early intervention should come from the state, not-for-profit organisations and families – this is crucial if we as a nation want to avoid framing children in terms of what they can do for us rather than what we can do for them.

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