Willie Rennie: Invest in toddlers to tackle poverty of self-belief

Youths congregate near abandoned housing in Possil, Glasgow. Picture: Getty
Youths congregate near abandoned housing in Possil, Glasgow. Picture: Getty
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I READ somewhere once that in ­ancient China, you paid your doctor only on the days you were well and then stopped paying him when you got sick. It was his job to keep you well and if you succumbed to illness then he was failing in that duty.

It’s always struck me as a powerful ­reminder that it’s better to stop something going wrong in the first place, than to spend money mopping up after it when it does. As such, I’ve been proud, along with my fellow Liberal Democrats, to support a policy shift which front loads spending to head off social problems as early as ­possible before they become much ­bigger and more expensive to resolve further down the line.

Put simply, all the parties now agree that chucking money at the symptoms of a problem doesn’t always make it go away and there’s a cruel irony about poverty which makes that especially true. At face value, money should cure poverty – after all, it’s the absence of cash and the accumulation of debt which most people would tell you are the hallmarks of ­poverty. And whilst they’d be absolutely right, that’s only half the picture.

Poverty has to be viewed beyond the overdraft, the unpaid electricity bill or the missed loan repayment because financial poverty is just one of a suffocating range of barriers which still blight the lives of a staggering number Scots. I’m talking about poverty of self-belief, brought about by crushing levels of local deprivation in communities where unemployment is the norm; and about poverty of opportunity where poor educational attainment is compounded by a hostile and hugely competitive labour market.

These brands of poverty walk hand in hand with financial poverty and they ­destroy lives.

Indeed the seeds of a lifelong poverty can be sown years, even decades before you open your first bank account. All too many children in this country are born into poverty, itself a national disgrace, but it is the failings of the state and not family circumstance which serve to keep them in that condition indefinitely.

A recent study by Save the Children identified that children who are born into poverty, are more than twice as likely to start school with developmental difficulties as those from more affluent backgrounds. Such developmental problems can have wide-ranging repercussions for their life chances going forward. The link between poor educational attainment, economic inactivity and a range of other negative social outcomes in later life is well documented. We know that if children don’t get the best chances in their early years, they may never catch up. This is a gap in provision which will only lock in a gap in attainment. So if, as a country, we have accepted the principles of ­preventative spending, let’s turn our ­attention to this poverty of opportunity in the early education of our children as the next frontier in this agenda.

I’ve said already that chucking money at a problem doesn’t make it go away, but targeting it at a specific intervention can do. Time and time again this is proven by research. The Nobel laureate James Heckman has worked out that the highest rate of return in education is from investment before the age of three. One pound in ­before the age of three saves £11 later. Why then has the Scottish Government prioritised the provision of free early ­education only to children who, at the age of three, have ­already passed this critical milestone?

Liberal Democrats in government at Westminster have already introduced free early education for 40 per cent of all two-year-olds in England, it’s time we gave Scottish kids the same deal. By offering children from more deprived backgrounds the opportunity to begin their educational development at an earlier age we stand a greater chance of enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities that primary and secondary can offer them.

If we can identify and manage developmental problems in two-year-olds before they take hold then we can level the playing field before they even pull on that primary school jumper for the first time. If we don’t, then we will have to watch as our English counterparts reap the benefits of a real and focused investment in this critical area.

How we as decision-makers seek to eradicate poverty in all its forms and at all ages, should be the yard stick against which we are assessed before all other things. The Scottish Government is currently failing this test. «

Willie Rennie MSP is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats