Early Childhood: The Role of Public Research
How can research help secure better outcomes in early childhood?
The value of scientific research into early childhood brain development is widely understood. We know that a two-year-old’s brain has twice as many connections than an adult’s  – enabling the brain to learn faster than at any other time of life.
Less-well known perhaps, is the crucial role that research with the public can play. Understanding how people think and feel, and the support parents and families need, is vital to helping parents, institutions including government, and those providing front-line public services to create a nurturing environment for the early years.
Firstly, social research helps organisations to better support the needs of families. For example, when research including an Ipsos survey of working parents showed that use of childcare would continue to increase after the pandemic, action was taken to make sure more parents would still be eligible for free childcare.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on the way decisions are made across public services, and also sparked unprecedented public engagement with data. We’ve seen increased public support for government using statistics and expert advice to make decisions. At the same time, our public sector clients have described to us a growing demand for data and expertise in policymaking.
Secondly, research can help identify what best practice around the early years looks like. Evaluation and research helps us see which types of support and intervention are most effective, in what context, and for which children and families. This is often best determined by combining multiple sources of data – such as surveys of parents with interviews with professionals, alongside data on child development outcomes.
To help identify and share best practice, the What Works network was set up nearly ten years ago, inspired by the approach taken by NICE for medical science. Ten What Works Centres are now translating research and evaluation evidence into policy recommendations in areas from crime reduction to wellbeing in later life. One of these, the Early Intervention Foundation, brings together evidence about how to support children facing disadvantage and give them the right start in life: for example, by creating practical guides to support healthy relationships for separated parents.
Thirdly, research can also help raise awareness, and change behaviours and attitudes. Work is underway across the public sector to encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly behaviours and more healthy life choices. To achieve the Centre’s goal of transforming society, we need to change the way people think about early childhood. This means using research with parents and the wider public to help better understand motivations and barriers, including levels of knowledge or confidence, and ability to access support.
In the current context of COVID-recovery and a cost of living crisis, being able to understand the immediate circumstances, experiences and needs of families has never been more important. However, research can also provide a valuable long-term view. For example, cohort studies, which follow the same group of children over time as they grow up, have powerfully demonstrated how early life experiences affect people into adulthood, and helped to make the case for tackling child poverty. The Children of the 2020s study, launched last year, will follow thousands of babies over their first five years of life and help us understand the factors affecting children’s development in those vital years, as well as how best to support families.
Finally, we know stories are important as well as numbers. The inspiration for the Centre for Early Childhood began with stories of people rebuilding their lives after a difficult start in childhood. Social research is not just about observing trends and attitudes, but understanding them – answering the question of “why?” as well as “how many?”. For example, Ipsos research about the “Troubled Families” programme illustrated how parental mental health and wellbeing affects the whole family. Fundamentally, social research listens to people and when impactfully communicated it gives them a voice.
What does the latest data tell us?
Building on the Duchess of Cambridge’s 5 Big Questions survey in 2020, our recent research with the public on the early years, provides valuable insight on two of these fronts: identifying the need for action, and better understanding the key levers that may help increase positive and longer lasting mandates for change.
The findings suggest that there is room for growth in elevating the relative importance of early years across society. Whilst there is near universal agreement (91%) that the early years are important in shaping a person’s future life, the early years are rarely seen as the most important stage in child development. Just under one in five (17%) say the early years are the most important stage of shaping a person’s future life (20% said primary school years and 17% who said secondary school years). The data identified key differences by subgroups of people too – the perceived importance of early years was lower among men and among those under the age of 35.
Furthermore, the survey provides evidence of wide public support for greater action, and a clear mandate for placing greater emphasis on the early years. Less than half (43%) said they felt the early years are currently a top priority in the UK, and seven in ten (70%) say it should be more of a priority.
One of the threads running through the data is the perceived importance of relationships and mental health. The public already have a strong association between development in the early years and these attributes, and view this to be one of the most persuasive reasons for greater investment in this stage of childhood.
Finally, the survey also provides useful data for those responsible for designing and delivering support services. It identifies the period of early childhood as a key time for advice and support for parents – 85% of those with a child aged 0-5 sought advice and support over the last 12 months, compared to 72% of parents with children under 18. It further illustrates the extent to which parents draw on a mix of formal and informal sources for support, including use of online resources.
The survey findings can be found here.
Where next for early childhood research?
Elsewhere, if we take a broad look across the landscape of early years research, two key challenges emerge: being able to collect reliable data from children under 5, and providing a safe space for parents to ensure that they do not feel judged when taking part in research. But technology can provide solutions.
The use of passive data collection provides a chance to collect accurate behavioural data. For example, using an accelerometer wristband to collect better data on the physical activity of young children, or using software to help understand how and when children use the internet to better safeguard against potential harms.
A new range of research apps can help us both get closer to the real life experience of families, and provide safe spaces for participants to come together anonymously. For example, we’re currently using an online diary app to collect information on when and why families choose to walk rather than drive to school. This includes pictures, live comments and tracking of routes on a map to bring this experience to life and better understand motivations and barriers to more active lifestyles.
Of course, it's important to note that ethics and consent will remain fundamental to all early years research, especially any use of technology, to ensure participants are fully informed and safeguarded.
Alongside new technology, the research sector is also embracing a wider pool of skills to help make better sense of the data we can access or generate. We are becoming more multi-disciplinary, bringing together qualitative and quantitative research experts, evaluators, economists, data scientists, behavioural scientists and communications professionals. The greatest impact will come from our ability to bring different sources of data together.
The Centre has already demonstrated, in a relatively short space of time, just how valuable research can be in helping raise awareness and drive action on the early years. By placing research at the very heart of its mission, I’m excited by the further potential to come, and look forward to future work that continues to build this important evidence base.
Kelly Beaver MBE
Chief Executive Ipsos UK & Ireland
Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London
Fellow of the Academy of Social Science