Frank Field

The first two years of life are more important for social mobility than schooling

The first two years of life are more important for social mobility than schooling
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Much is prattled on about social mobility. Practically the whole emphasis, however, is put on schools. Yet by the time most children reach school, life’s race for many of us has been determined.

The report I wrote for the Prime Minister published in December 2010, The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults, had this as its main conclusion.

Drawing on all the evidence we have available to us, the report suggested that the very first stages of life, in pregnancy, and during the first two years, are crucial as to where most children will end up in adult life. Using one of the national cohorts, Leon Feinstein showed that, probably at 3, but certainly at 5, the life destinations of children are clearly marked.

Schools lift the ability range of practically all children but they are notoriously bad at closing what appears to be these class differences. If there was one message from the report, it was that if politicians are interested in social mobility, they would switch their efforts and attention to the early years of life.

So what should we do? Ironically, today’s research showing that 58 per cent of a child’s GCSE results are determined by genes reinforces this point. 42 per cent of success is not determined by genes. So there is everything to play for here. But, as importantly, how genes, or that 58 per cent, affect outcomes for children is not a given.

The pioneering work by Stephen Suomi on monkeys shows that the actions of the mother can block the operation of 'bad genes' and likewise encourage the use of 'good genes'  that help determine the outcome of their offspring.

We know that what happens to us in our first couple of years of lifewill determine our success, not only academically and economically, but socially. If politicians were really interested in social mobility, let alone human happiness, they would concentrate their thinking and actions on these first crucial two years of life and early on in life’s food chain. And while good schools are important for lots of reasons, they cannot achieve the miracle that comes from early nurturing trumping nature.

Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead