catch them young

analysis, bbc radio 4, 26 august 2004

KENAN MALIK   Nursery for under-threes makes children aggressive, smacking causes long-term emotional damage, and parents need to be taught parenting skills. The early years of a child's life are crucial.

USHA GOSWAMI   I do think that there's an awful lot of compelling evidence that your experiences in your early years are very important for the way you can function both emotionally and cognitively. I think there's been a lot of very good psychology and psychiatry research showing these kinds of things.

JAY BELSKY   I have real problems with the notion that the early years are crucial. Crucial kind of implies that if something doesn’t happen or something does happen, then that foretells everything thereafter.

KENAN MALIK   Professor Usha Goswami, a developmental psychologist from Cambridge University and Jay Belsky, Director of London University's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues. So, who's right? Do the early years really set the tone for the rest of your life? And if so what are the lessons for policy makers? In America the so-called 0-3 movement has won support at the highest levels. Hillary Clinton told a White House conference in 1997 that 'a child's earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired' and 'can determine whether children grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents.' In Britain, too, policy makers are warming to the idea that we should catch them young and save society trouble later.

NORMAN GLASS   The Chancellor has talked about this century as being the century of pre-school provision and so on, and that's fantastically encouraging and indeed he's expanded the programme enormously. I was very cheered up when I saw that the Chancellor has launched at least a pilot programme of free childcare for children aged two.

KENAN MALIK   Norman Glass, Chief Executiveof the National Centre for Social Research and a key instigator of the government's Sure Start policy for pre-school children. There are now more than 500 Sure Start programmes around the country. They are largely local initiatives that help integrate nursery education, family support, child and maternal health services and parenting classes.

NORMAN GLASS   I became convinced in the course of the work I did in the Treasury that early years, between birth and going to school, were an important phase in children's lives. I certainly felt when we launched the Sure Start programme that there needed to be more resources for this particular sector compared to what was being spent on universities, secondary education, primary education. So Sure Start was an early years programme not just about child care but about health, about family support, about bringing all these things together, and about making sure that it was delivered at a local level. As far as the provision for nursery education for children below the age of three, I think there is a strong case for ensuring that there is high quality childcare.

KENAN MALIK   The government is now planning a new network of children's centres, and aims to extend free nursery provision to children under three. But not everyone's happy. Sue Gerhardt is a psychotherapist and author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain.

SUE GERHARDT  It's a very contentious area, but from my point of view babies need one to one attention. They need to be with people who really know them well, notice how they are and respond quickly to them. Now that I don't think is terribly likely to happen in a nursery situation. I don't think nurseries are great for babies, and we do know that full time care in nurseries has some quite bad effects on children who go into that system.

KENAN MALIK   The debate about nurseries has now become a major talking point. The press here recently picked up on academic studies that seemed to challenge the wisdom of placing very young children in day care. 'Nurseries are turning our children into thugs', ran the headline in the London Evening Standard. Could this really be true? Professor Jay Belsky.

JAY BELSKY   There's increasing evidence on both sides of the Atlantic that when babies, beginning in the first or even the second year of life, spend long hours in childcare centres and maybe even with child minders, that as they go to school they're more likely to be more aggressive and disobedient than are other children. That doesn't mean that they are going to be axe murderers or thugs, as a newspaper recently said, but they are more aggressive and disobedient than other children; and that seems to be the case even when they've been, if you would, in better quality or good quality nurseries and child minder settings.

KENAN MALIK   Are there also positive aspects of sending children under three to daycare?

JAY BELSKY   Well there's this mixed set of findings which is - and they're mixed only because we don't have a theory to accommodate them. In fact there is some evidence that when children under three are in good quality childcare, they end up starting school, especially if they have spent lots of time in centres, being somewhat more cognitively and linguistically skilled but also somewhat more aggressive and disobedient.

KENAN MALIK   In Britain the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project (or EPPE) has been studying the impact of pre-school education on later life. Kathy Sylva is Professor of Educational Psychology at Oxford University and a lead researcher on this ongoing study as well as a government adviser. How does she view the impact of nurseries on the very young?

KATHY SYLVA   EPPE studied thousands of children and some of them, actually about three hundred of them, had been in some kind of care or education before the age of two, and a very small proportion of these children, but a statistically significant proportion, did develop behaviour problems - mostly they were anti-social - when they were about three. So there is some effect of early day care. It was mostly below the age of one, and it was mostly in group settings such as day nurseries, but it was for a very small percent of children. Many of our children who were in day nurseries under the age of two had no increase in anti-social behaviour, but there is a risk for a small group of children, especially in nursery, day nursery care, and especially if they're there before the age of one.

KENAN MALIK   So you're not saying that high levels of group care for under twos causes behavioural problems?

KATHY SYLVA   In a study such as ours, it's very hard to say cause and effect. If you have a child or you're about to tell me you have a child in a day care centre under two, your child is probably - as are most children - going to be just absolutely fine. If she's a girl, she's almost certain to be fine.

KENAN MALIK   As it happens, my daughter Carmen, who is eleven months old, attends a day nursery three days a week. It allows me to make programmes such as this. Am I worried? Not really. The studies suggest that if you take 100 children from the general population and compared them to 100 children who attended nursery before they were three, there would be just one more anti-social child among the early starters than among the population at large. If Carmen does become a teenage tearaway, I doubt if I'll be able to put the blame on her starting nursery early. And Norman Glass, founder of the Sure Start programme, wouldn't expect me to.

NORMAN GLASS   I, in the course of the work that we're doing on Sure Start and subsequently, looked at a lot of the research on child development. There are various kinds of evidence here. We're talking about some evidence that's been done on early brain development, no one study is crucial - it's social science, you don't get a kind of crunching result - but the weight of the evidence seemed to me to be pushing you towards saying that early years were of particular importance.

KENAN MALIK   But what's interesting is that you have two groups of people, both of whom agree that early years are important, are critically important - one of whom say it's so critically important that you shouldn't send them to day care because that damages them for the rest of their lives, and those who say that it is so critically important that you should send them to day care because it sets them up for the rest of their lives. How do you resolve that?

NORMAN GLASS   I think that it's an unfortunate polarisation. I would certainly subscribe to the view, and that certainly was what lay behind the Sure Start programme, that families are very important. There was the work from our cohort studies here, our birth cohort studies in the UK, which seemed to show that many of the factors which affected children's subsequent lives were present very early on in their lives in terms of parental involvement and so on, for example, and the intention was certainly to enable parents to do a better job. But there are also studies which quite clearly show that high quality childcare, education, play and so on, can make a big difference for children, particularly for children from deprived areas. It's there in a way to supplement and encourage parents.

KENAN MALIK   Yet many parents cannot but feel guilty about leaving their children to be looked after by strangers. Such guilt is probably strongest among middle class parents who often see their decision to place a child in a nursery as a lifestyle choice rather than a financial necessity.

EXPRESS HEADLINE   The grim reality of our nurseries.

KENAN MALIK   The headline to a recent Sunday Express leader article in the wake of the BBC1 Real Story programme ‘Nurseries Undercover’ in which nursery staff were secretly filmed shouting at two-year old children, calling them idiots when they cried for their mother, laughing at them and teasing them. The leader continued.

EXPRESS ARTICLE   The other day I was out for coffee with another mother who sends her one year old boy to nursery three days a week because she wants and needs to work. I had to whisk away the newspaper lying on our table before she could see the headline: 'Are Nurseries Bad For Babies?' and feel even more miserable about a life that already pulls her in too many different directions. For the thousands of mums and dads all over the country with children in nursery, the unkindness and bullying in Real Story were the stuff of nightmares.

KENAN MALIK   But if middle class anxieties are helping fuel the current furore about nurseries, it's not middle class children that really concern policy makers. Kathy Sylva.

KATHY SYLVA   The EPPE data show that middle class families actually are pretty good at helping the child learning. That means it's important to focus on helping parents support learning at home on more disadvantaged communities because these are the communities where the parents don't use the strategies that seem to be successful in supporting their children's learning.

KENAN MALIK   Doesn't this smack of a certain kind of patronising view of non-middle class families?

KATHY SYLVA  I don't think it's patronising. It might be that in the middle class there are other kinds of needs. Maybe the middle class need training on not to give their children too much money, not to give them too many choices about restaurant meals.

KENAN MALIK  Oh well, I must remember to take my daughter to Pizza Express rather than Gordon Ramsay's. All this leaves policy makers with a dilemma. They want greater access to nurseries for disadvantaged children, because they worry that their parents may not be up to the job. But good quality nurseries are expensive. And those who can afford private nurseries - middle class parents - are increasingly anxious about the whole idea of day care for the very young. Underlying all this is the belief that a young child's experiences indelibly shape his or her future life. In the past, data about the importance of infancy came largely from psychological studies. These days, early years advocates are turning to more high-tech areas such as neuroscience for evidence. Unlike Norman Glass, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt thinks that young children should not be placed in nurseries. But she too looks to brain science to back her particular theory of why the early years are so crucial.

SUE GERHARDT   I use the term 'the social brain', I think, as a kind of shorthand really to refer to all the systems that manage emotion in the brain. One of the striking things is that these parts of the brain develop in response to the experiences that the child has. In particular, what I'm referring to is the pre-frontal cortex. Loving relationships, pleasurable relationships apparently trigger off a kind of cascade of hormones which actually help the pre-frontal part of the brain to develop.

KENAN MALIK   And you're saying that there is a particularly sensitive period for the development of this part of the brain?

SUE GERHARDT   Yes. The first two years in general are when this part of the brain gets going. We can say that during babyhood these systems are very easily upset by stressful experience you know like being left alone for too long or being treated abusively. And what happens is that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are released. They're very toxic to developing systems in particular.

KENAN MALIK   Others, however, are more wary about the data. Professor Usha Goswami of Cambridge University.

USHA GOSWAMI  I think some groups are now beginning to measure things like cortisol response, for example, but that would be through cheek swabs, it wouldn't necessarily be within the brain itself, and to make analogies about the effects of cortisol in stress systems and so on. But I think that they're quite extreme, the circumstances that are imposed on children being measured. Something like your mother being clinically depressed. It doesn't mean something like your mother putting you in day care for six hours. I think everybody has hypotheses and you can see data that does or doesn't seem to fit with your hypotheses, but to use data from extreme groups to make arguments about the general population is always risky.

KENAN MALIK   Much of the data on the importance of early years has, indeed, come from children placed in extreme circumstances. For instance, the early studies demonstrating the importance of the mother-child bond were conducted by psychoanalyst John Bowlby on children in wartime nurseries. These were grim places, more like factories than nurseries, and a world away from today's day care centres. Today much is made of the experience of children brought up in Romanian orphanages during the Ceaucescu regime and of the psychological and neurological damage they suffered. But can the experience of these children really tell us anything about the lives of ordinary youngsters? The American neuroscientist Steve Peterson has said, only half-jokingly, that, as far as brain development goes, the only advice he'd give parents is 'Don't raise your children in a closet; don't starve them; and don't hit them over the head with a frying pan.' Psychologist John Bruer, Director of the James S McDonald Foundation, in St Louis, Missouri, agrees.

JOHN BRUER   There is no neuroscientific research that supports the claim that the first three years are critical for all these various kinds of development and that is the only time educators can usefully intervene to help children. The fact of the matter is people involved in the debate are for the most part not scientists, are not neuroscientists at least; they're policy people, educators, psychiatrists, social workers. There are clearly critical periods for certain kinds of development - typically vision, hearing, acquiring a first language. Beyond that, the evidence is very slim. But the belief that there are long-term consequences from early childhood that carry into adult life across a wide range of skills and abilities, we'll find that claim is not warranted.

KENAN MALIK   But is John Bruer right? Usha Goswami is currently setting up a Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University. What does she think about the idea of a 'critical period' in brain development?

USHA GOSWAMI  Well, if you're wondering about how the brain develops, the first ten years are a really important time because the metabolic rate of the child's brain is much higher than that of the adult's in those early years and we know that an awful lot of connections are forming and also being pruned in those years. There's great plasticity. There's actually plasticity throughout life though. The adult brain also can form connections at a rapid rate. For example, if someone's had a stroke, when they recover function that's because the brain is busy growing or re-growing connections. So in that sense the child's brain is not more plastic than the adult's.

KENAN MALIK   The critical period, then, is not simply the first 3 years, but could be the first 10 years, or even throughout your life. Psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt accepts this, but nevertheless insists that babyhood is special.

SUE GERHARDT   The brain is plastic and it goes on being plastic throughout life, as I understand it, so that there's always hope and there's always the possibility of developing one's brain in positive ways throughout life. But the point about babyhood is that it's a very concentrated period where all sorts of systems are being set up and they're very vulnerable to being damaged. This is also when there's a great burst of connections in the pre-frontal cortex and it's when the baby really becomes a social being and becomes attached to his parents in a way that we can actually measure by the age of one.

KENAN MALIK   The finding that most brain connections - or synapses as neuroscientists call them - are established in infancy has excited some policy makers, especially in America. The state of Florida requires that all nurseries play Mozart every day in the belief that classical music helps establish more synapses. In Georgia and Tennessee every mother who gives birth is sent home from hospital with a classical CD. But does a well-connected brain really make for a better baby? John Bruer.

JOHN BRUER   One of the simple-minded inferences that's drawn from this increased synaptic connectivity in early childhood is that good parenting or good early childhood programmes should preserve as many synapses as possible, and somehow that the number of synapses you have equates to how intelligent you will be later in life. It can turn parenting and early childhood education into kind of synaptic bean counting and that claim is not warranted. And one of the examples one could give is Fragile X Syndrome, which results in severe mental retardation as the result of over production of synapses, and maintaining those synaptic connections into later life. So there's really no simple linear mapping from how many synapses you have to how smart you are or how well adjusted you are.

KENAN MALIK   The trouble with much of the scientific data is that it is not easy to interpret, especially if you're trying to jump from brain science to social policy. Professor Usha Goswami.

USHA GOSWAMI   Most of the things we know about early brain development come from research on animal systems - for example the rat - so the research showing this early synaptogenesis in the first three years was done with rats. And, for example, when the rats were given a more enriched environment, so instead of being in regular cages they had lots of things to play with and to stimulate them, then there was more synaptogenesis in those animals. But it's a big leap to go from the rat brain to the human brain and particularly to then make arguments about enriched environments in the early years.

KENAN MALIK   Where then do the claims that neuroscience provides the evidence for the importance of particular experience for the development of the infant brain, where do those claims come from?

USHA GOSWAMI   My guess is that it would be largely from studies in animal model systems. There are very few research groups around the world who actually do neuroscience studies with children. There are many problems in doing such studies with children. The major technique that we've had until recently was pet imaging, which uses radioactive tracers which you clearly cannot give to children. We also have magnetic resonance imaging now and certainly in the States, laboratories are beginning to do that kind of work with children and with infants. Again there are artefacts in that kind of data if you move too much, so that's been a big problem because children tend to move a lot inside the scanner. There's also the technique of EEG, which is what we use ourselves, which is non-invasive - you put electrodes on the scalp of the child or the baby and you can measure the brain's electrical changes to different events. But that field too is in its infancy in terms of understanding what those changes might signify.

KENAN MALIK   Depending on whom you talk to, the scientific evidence shows that the first years are crucially important or it shows that they're not. It tells us to send young children to nursery, and it tells us to keep them at home. Perhaps the truth is that the evidence simply isn't there to allow us to make these kinds of calls. But then, you don't need science to tell you that young children respond best to parental love and affection. And there may be good social and political, as opposed to scientific, reasons for expanding nursery provision. Indeed, the Cambridge historian Dr Deborah Thom suggests that social concerns have long shaped our view of the very young.

DEBORAH THOM   These ideas are often contested. But what we see happening in the late 1940s is a certain agreement about the importance of the bond with the mother, with the primary caregiver, in the sense that that's the fundamental basis of emotional functioning and development. That to some extent diminishes in the years after the founding of the welfare state when it has practical achievements in terms of infant welfare provision, clinics, monitoring of general development. It diminishes to some extent in the 60s as people begin to look a bit out from the mother and more at other effects on a child's life. And to some extent then concentration moves away from the early years and into nursery schooling and schooling, and sociology begins to play a part in how people think about children. Early years comes back to some extent with anxieties about how well some parents are performing their task that we get re-emerging in the 1980s.

KENAN MALIK   Is today's preoccupation with young children also driven by wider social concerns? Government advisor Kathy Sylva.

KATHY SYLVA   We have found from relatively robust statistical analysis that investment in a young child's care and education probably does pay off. We found, for example, that high quality provision was related to children being less likely to be identified as having special educational needs. They are very expensive. The early years part of education has really demonstrated its worth. It's up to other areas of education to demonstrate that they too have effects, positive effects.

JOHN BRUER  It particularly concerned me in the United States when policy discussions began emphasizing the first three years of life. Policy people were saying well let's take money away from remedial education or education in the prisons and put that money into early childhood because if we did that, we can eliminate the need for remediation, we can eliminate the need for educational programmes in prisons in the sense that there might be fewer people in prison down the road.

KENAN MALIK   John Bruer. Similarly in Britain, one of the arguments for the introduction of university top-up fees was that resources should be targeted where they could really make a difference - at the very young. There is another way, too, in which the emphasis on the early years can have a wider impact. By turning childhood into such a precious commodity, policy makers win acceptance for the idea that adults must be taught how to protect that commodity. So policies about children become ways of shaping the behaviour of adults, especially parents. Hence, for instance, the growing number of parenting classes which now come as part of the government's Sure Start package. It's not a new idea, suggests Deborah Thom.

DEBORAH THOM   There were extensive motherhood classes in the years before the First World War. You had institutions called Schools for Mothers, which were designed to get working class women operating more hygienically and more sensibly. You get the re-emergence of such institutions at the end of the Second World War when local authorities are very worried that a generation of women who've been getting their hands roughened in factories may find it very hard to get back to the task of rearing children and doing it properly and authentically. There is this assumption that people don't know what they're doing and don't do it very well, and that if you teach them they can learn.

KENAN MALIK   In a way you're saying that parenting classes or mothering classes is driven by a view that certain groups of people - the working class, the disadvantaged - are unable to look after their children properly.

DEBORAH THOM   I think historically that's true. They're designed to remedy what people see as deficiencies.

KENAN MALIK   Of course policy makers wouldn't put it like that. They talk about social equality and helping the disadvantaged. But one can't help feeling that the old notion of 'remedying deficiency' is at least an undercurrent to the fashion for parenting classes, as it is in the wider nursery debate. Professor John Bruer thinks it's time to take a more relaxed view of infant life.

JOHN BRUER   What we have surrounding this issue of the first three years is more of a political debate than a scientific debate. People will show improved educational outcomes as long as they have improved educational opportunities, and to think that an intensive dose of affection and caring in the first three years of life is going to provide insulation to deal with the various environments, good and bad, that you will deal with later is really unwarranted. I'm not saying the early childhood years are unimportant, but they are no more important than other stages in our development and education.

KENAN MALIK   As a parent I fuss and fret over my child and worry incessantly about her future. That's inevitable. It's unhealthy, though, for society to do the same. Certainly, the first years of a child's life are important. And certainly we need a rational childcare and education policy, which encompasses the needs of children, parents and society as a whole. But there is no evidence that the first years of life indelibly shape an individual's future. Let's not make believe that we can solve society's problems just by catching them young.