Evidence-based policy making: Discussion at the Early Intervention Foundation

Recently, TSIC attended an event organised by our friends at Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), titled ‘Does Crucial Development only occur in the first two years of life?’ It is the second event of the #ScienceSeries, which aims to summarise and clarify the biological and sociological evidence on Early Intervention for policy makers, practitioners and commissioners.

The two expert presentations came from the fields of neuroscience and social science. Professors Essi Viding and Eamon McCrory from the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at University College London presented their research on how early childhood distress affects epigenetics, a relatively new science field which studies heritable changes caused by factors other than the innate DNA sequence – in other words, events during one’s lifetime. While the first two years are especially critical as 80 per cent of human brain is already fully developed during this period, adolescence is another formative period for higher order functions.

Professor John Hobcraft, Professor of Demography and Social Policy from the University of York, provided a different lens on how crucial development occurs in early childhood but also the prenatal period. Building on the Millennium Cohort Study, which focuses on a wide range of factors from parenting to socio-economic environment, he analysed how these factors are predictive of children’s behavioural and cognitive outcomes. One interesting finding of his research is that socio-economic factors like household earnings and ethnicity matter for cognitive outcomes, they do not matter much for behavioural outcomes, which are largely affected by parenting. His research also highlighted the gender dimension of early childhood development: the important role of mothers from their education levels to mothering behaviour like breastfeeding. Surprisingly, the research shows that boys lag behind girls in development from 0 to 5 years old. Even accounting for the role of fathers, Professor Hobcraft argues that the boy disadvantage does not go away.

Due to the complications in development and ongoing malleability of functions, there is no one magic bullet of intervention. Instead of focusing development only on the first two years, the speakers agreed that interventions need to be persistent and holistic. Apart from cross-generational intervention, we also need cross-agency intervention to ensure that the multiplicity of factors affecting childhood development is addressed. This event at EIF showed that better evidence is crucial in maximising impact of intervention programmes for child and youth development.

In 2013, the UK government implemented What Works, a new policy initiative to launch a series of specialist centres that are independent of the government in order to build upon existing evidence-based policy making. EIF was founded in July 2013, focusing on childhood and youth development. Our CEO, Jake, is a Trustee of EIF, and we look forward to more discussions like the #ScienceSeries to inform effective social change.

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