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Wednesday, January 21, 1998 Published at 14:07 GMT


Government to focus on under-sevens
image: [ Experts believe that early intervention may prevent delinquency and under-achievement later on ]
Experts believe that early intervention may prevent delinquency and under-achievement later on

Niall Dickson reports on government plans to improve services for children under seven (4'40")
The government is considering radical plans to improve services for children under seven. The state spends £10bn a year on young children - not including benefit payments - but ministers believe current services are patchy and unco-ordinated. Now, according to the BBC's Social Affairs Editor, Niall Dickson, ministers from 11 government departments are putting together a plan for a new approach:

Growing evidence that early intervention may prevent delinquency and under achievement later on has inspired this review of all the services aimed at children under seven.

Ann Jamieson of the National Children's Bureau is an enthusiastic advocate of the new approach. "The absolute shining priority is that we offer support to the developmental needs of children before they're three," she said.

It is not difficult to identify the children most at risk. Having a teenage mother, a low birth-weight or rowing parents can all be detrimental.

One of these factors on its own seems to make no difference but when there are two or more, a child is four times more likely to develop problems.

Poverty 'never far away'

Naomi Eisenstat of the Family Service Unity says that poverty is never far away: "A quiet place to do homework is an issue for poor families. At every single stage there is a significant disadvantage for families living in poverty."

Woodlands Park nursery in Haringey is one of the models the government would like to see develop elsewhere.

It does not just offer pre-school education but also home visits, parenting classes, a family reading scheme aimed at parents as much as children, day care and much more.

Encouraging results

Carol Warden, who runs the centre, says that its appeal lies in the fact that it does not overtly target 'problem families' - although some places are set aside for children identified as being risk or having special needs. She says the results are encouraging: "Children improve in their confidence and skills ... the level of competence they achieve at the end is very positive."

The government hopes to stimulate many more schemes like this using project funds but money would only be forthcoming if all the local agencies agreed to work together. And that is where the difficulties start.

Even at the Woodlands nursery, health screening has been withdrawn by the National Health Service and referrals from local health visitors have diminished since they have been attached to GP surgeries rather than serving a fixed catchment area.

And what happens when the funding for these schemes runs out? Officials are already contemplating the next stage and one idea is a new agency to co-ordinate all children's services in an area.

Ann Jamieson of the National Children's Bureau is sceptical and believes that such a move would require an administrative rethink: "I think if we're going to have single purchasers, then they must be democratic - you have to look towards local government," she said.

Professionals 'part of the problem'

And there are other critics who see the professionals as part of the problem.

Writer and social commentator, Lynette Burrows, is scathing about the government's plans, describing them as "a complete waste of time" and adding: "If the government wants to help children's development, the best thing it can do is to enable mothers to spend more time with them."

But some five-year-olds still turn up at school barely able to talk and unable to hold a knife and fork properly - their experience of life drawn almost entirely from the television screen.

It is no wonder they do not thrive at school and their experience suggests something more needs to be done.

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