Resources need to be targeted at children from start

Intervention in children’s lives in vital early years of primary importance

As part of the Rising commemorations, a group of young people from the Kilbarrack coast community programme painted a mural showing their view of 1916.

As part of the Rising commemorations, a group of young people from the Kilbarrack coast community programme painted a mural showing their view of 1916.


“From the moment they walked in for their first day at school, I could tell which child would flourish – and which child would not.” The words are those of a recently retired primary school-teacher, after 40 years in the classroom.

It may seem a depressing thought, that the die of human development is cast so early. Yet this truth can equally be taken a different way, if society recognises the primary importance of intervention in children’s lives in those vital, few early years.

We have made some genuine progress on children’s welfare in recent years, by genuinely starting to put their needs first and providing more options on early education and care. Budget 2017’s promises on childcare support mark another step on that journey, if fulfilled.

1916 Rising

Growing Up in Ireland

The ESRI study attempts to bring together existing information to give a comprehensive picture of progress on children’s welfare. One hundred years ago, children were seldom thought of as individuals. Many were prone to infectious diseases, left school early and were quickly made to labour hard.

Today, these problems have been largely overcome, but the challenge of inequality persists. A new interest in their emotional wellbeing has been matched by a new set of concerns on that front. Bullying and mental health issues have risen in prominence just as old worries over polio or diphtheria have faded.Even before children go to school – even before they are born – there are big variations in factors such as birth-weight or reading ability. Poorer children start with big disadvantages, and most struggle to catch up.

Childcare payment

Other supports, however, remain woefully inadequate, such as remedial help to overcome learning disabilities.

Inequality has developed new facts as society has diversified, most notably among migrant children.

Disappointingly and a little surprisingly, the evidence shows these children struggle to overcome language drawbacks and score poorly in reading and maths in the early years.

This finding should serve as a clear warning for the future in terms of successful integration. The findings on the children of lone parents, who are significantly disadvantaged regardless of income, are particularly stark and need addressing. The question is how – by providing more supports to enable the parent to stay at home, or by designing supports to encourage the parent to join the workforce?

It helps that we now have so much comprehensive data on children’s development. This will obviously help inform public policy but only to a point. Policy involves making decisions, and that involves choices between competing demands. While the clear thrust of research suggests resources should be targeted on the earliest years of education, politicians have been slow to do this. Children don’t have votes, after all.