Michael Bassey's comments on Labour’s Children and Education Policy Commission’s paper “Delivering a step change in early intervention and the early years”.

“The first 1000 days of a child’s life are crucial”.  Agreed. But in what respects are they crucial?  In my judgement the crucial elements beyond nutrition, warmth, and hygiene include providing love, security and regular stimulus that promotes language development and cognitive growth.  The quality of interaction between parent and child during these first 1000 days has a major bearing on the personal qualities and probably the intelligence of the eventual adult.

This interaction is the proper responsibility and, indeed, the potential joy, of parenthood.  What is sad to read in this paper is that “over half of mums say they would prefer to go out to work if they could find good quality and affordable childcare.”  The Labour Party should not support this modern trend in family life.  To go out to work and earn enough to pay someone else to nurture your children should be seen as a denial of parenthood.  In my view one parent – either mother or father – should be looking after the child during the crucial 1000 days, and that is something that we should assert, loud and clear and so order the economic affairs of the country that this can be achieved by every family that so desires.


In a recent pamphlet [1] I described two kinds of parent.

  • Some parents (call them ‘Group A’) talk to their children from birth [2], play with them, cuddle them, sing to them, and early on begin to share picture books with them, read stories and repeat nursery rhymes.  According to their economic circumstances the parents, usually the mothers, spend a lot of time in a one-to-one relationship with their child and share the child’s exploration of the home and garden environment, constantly talking about it.  This is how children learn to communicate and to use their eyes, ears and hands to make sense of their world.  Over the early years these parents provide toys that enable the child to solve simple problems (like putting different shapes into appropriate holes), toys that stimulate creative play (like bricks, dolls, toy cars) and materials for expression (like paint, crayon, playdough).  They sing to their children, play music to them, and – as the children grow older – introduce them to nursery rhymes – and much else.  These are the children who stand a good chance, by age eleven, of achieving the high standards that their parents (and government ministers) want for them.
  • But other parents (Call them ‘Group B’), often struggling with a low income and sometimes other domestic problems, may be able to give but little time to developing a one-to-one relationship with their child and find it easier to put the child in front of a television set with a dummy in the mouth as a comforter, hoping that a few cuddles will be sufficient to tell the child that he or she is loved.  It is both an economic and a cultural problem that results in these children struggling with reading, writing and maths as they move through school.  The economic aspect cannot be tackled by the education system, but the cultural aspect could be by universal access to Sure Start centres across the country. supported by primary school teachers.


There are, of course, several necessities if the idea of one parent being at home during the “1000 days” is to be universally practical. 


First, whichever parent is the wage earner must earn sufficient money to support the family in their home and, if that is not possible, the state must supplement, or provide, sufficient income for the family.  State subvention would be just because the first 1000 days of every citizen should matter in a civilized society where everybody has the right to a happy and satisfying lifetime and that is much determined by what happens in those 1000 days.  In order that the out-at-work wage-earning parent can earn sufficient money, there must be effective legislative control over minimum wages to ensure that this can happen.  There should also be appropriate legislation to ensure that a career is not endangered by a man or woman withdrawing their labour for several years of stay-at-home parenthood. 

The best way of ensuring there is sufficient family income with one parent staying at home is the emergent idea of citizen’s income [3].   This is the notion that a regular basic payment by the state is made to every man, woman and child as a citizen’s right.   It is a non-conditional payment as a citizen’s right.  If this were enacted it would facilitate one parent staying at home with their young children without impoverishing the family.. 


Second, there must be strong professional and community support available for the home-based parent – in Sure Start centres.  In addition to professional services including midwives, health visitors, nurses, family counsellors and (as I argue below) teachers, all Sure Start centres should include community rooms with at least a cafeteria and an abundance of toys where parents can regularly meet, establish new friendships and create a local culture of joyful parenthood.  Sure Start was begun by Labour in 1998 and by 2010 there were 3,500 Centres, often with the facilities described above.  But since then the Conservatives have appreciably cut the funding, facilities have been reduced and several hundred centres have closed.  The next Labour government must reverse this trend and put well-equipped centres into every community.  Yes – this will require substantial state funding.


Third, is the novel idea that community teachers experienced in early years education should contribute to the work of Sure Start centres by working with parents and encouraging what I have called ‘group A’ parental activity.   I suggest in my pamphlet: [4]     

  • Every primary school should have a geographically defined catchment area.  Within its catchment area, each should have responsible oversight for the educational development of every child from birth to age eleven.  Yes, instead of 5 to 11 I want the oversight to be from 0 to 11 (Best forget those who pay for private schooling.)
  • Every primary school should receive sufficient funding to take on early-years trained community teachers with an outreach function based at the local Sure Start Centre for all of the children aged from 0 to 3 living in the catchment area of the school. These teachers would be responsible to the school’s head. Exactly how it would be structured would vary from place to place according to local circumstances.
  • Many Sure Start centres already have strong links with primary schools with nurseries and their early years trained teachers and assistants.  This proposal goes further. It looks for additional teachers to be appointed to primary schools with the specific brief of helping parents from the birth of their children to talk and play as much as they can with them and, when parent and child come to the Sure Start centres contribute to helping them to be in what I have called ‘Group A’.
  • In rural and most suburban areas there should be no problem in defining catchment areas – as in the pre-1988 era.  In cities and other urban areas it may be necessary to have shared catchment areas.


It will add to the educational budget, but if it works, as I believe it will, in seriously reducing the “tail”  (meaning the children growing up with poor literacy, oracy and numeracy), eventually it will save the expense of later attempts at remedial action for these young people. 

It must be stressed however that putting these extra commitments onto a primary school must only happen if they have had the shackles of Ofsted, obsessive national curriculum, extensive assessment regime, floor standards, league tables, and performance-related pay, taken off first.  Then both measures (Sure Start and “shackles off”) will contribute to the prospect of more successful and satisfying lives ahead for all of their pupils.


These three points could do what the Commission’s paper sets out do: make a step change in the early years of childhood.

I confess I find the Commission’s paper somewhat disappointing.  It seems to have been written by economists not educationists.  Thus:

  • “Affordable high-quality child-care plays a critical role in supporting the economy. …  It has been estimated that increasing female participation in the UK workforce could add as much as £170 billion to the economy.  …  early intervention to help vulnerable children much earlier in their lives could save the Government almost £17 billion. … There are currently 3.7 million children growing up in poverty in the UK today, costing the Government around £29 billion a year. …  Family income is still the most significant factor in a child’s success in education. … Investing in early intervention will save taxpayers billions later down the line …”


The recognition in the paper of the importance of Sure Start centres is welcome.  Perhaps the economists could work out what it might cost to enable every family around the country to have access to one. 


The great merit of the paper is in the Labour party asserting the vital importance of those “1000 crucial days”.  What is missing is discussion of what should be happening in that period.  I submit that my account of Group A and Group B parents is fundamental to radically enhancing the worthwhile educational development  of children in Group B.


[1] Bassey:  Primary Education, Sure Start and Tackling ‘The Tail’  December 2013

[2] Some mothers even talk and sing to the child in the womb.

[3] New Zealand is considering introducing this.  See

[4] see [1] 


This ia an extended version of a paper posted on YourBritain on 17 April 2016