Prejudice masquerading as research: brain science and British social policy Dr Ellie Lee, Reader in Social Policy, University of Kent [email_address]
The new politics of the brain
The new politics of the brain
An apparently implausible claim
A paper published in the journal Brain and Mind is cited by Allen as the source of the images.
There are only five lines of text in the paper describing where the scan images come from
These tell us no more than ‘neuroradiologists interpreted 11 of 17 scans as abnormal from the children with global neglect’ - and there appear to be no other data or analysis of the data there is published.
But a claim with a great deal of traction
Neuroscience and attachment
‘ EVIDENCE SUPPORTS EARLY INTERVENTION
The comments of Dr Ellie Lee, quoted in the article on the Allen Report (online, 4 July), dismiss without evidence the consistent findings of neuro-scientific research over the past two decades on human brain development pre-birth and in the all-important first two years of life.
There can no longer be doubt that 'relationships build brains'.
Brains develop in response to the stimuli of their environment, and the central feature of the infant environment is the attachment relationship with the carer. Within a positive attuned attachment relationship, the brain connections are formed which allow the infant to develop the ability to regulate stress and impulse, to build emotional literacy and empathy, and to put together a coherent pre-cognitive framework for further learning’.
Brian Cairns, lead consultant, Kate Cairns Associates
(Star Letter, Nursery World , July 2011)
Family policy under the coalition
The Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances (Frank Field MP)
The Foundation Years: preventing poor children become poor adults (Dec 2010)
The Early Intervention Commission
Early Intervention: the Next Steps, Graham Allen MP (January 2011)
Early Intervention: Smart Investment, massive savings (July 2011)
Social Mobility (Nick Clegg MP, deputy Prime Minister)
Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility ( April 2011 )
Parenting Matters: early years and social mobility (August 2011, Centre Forum)
Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (Duncan Smith/Allen, 2008) The problem of ‘the bottom’
‘ As the fabric of society crumbles at the bottom what is left behind is an underclass where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown….What exercises me, perhaps more than anything else, is the very scale of these problems, the creeping expansion of this underclass…the norm is dysfunctional….the dysfunctional norm is spreading… (p9)
‘ There is evidence that people in the dysfunctional base have their children earlier and faster than average, building up a massive social and financial problems unless it is addressed soon’ (p22)
‘ There remain the problems of what social scientists call the existing ‘stock’: the children and young people who are already presenting with severe difficulties, as well as the ‘flow’: those at risk who are yet to be born’ (p24).
Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (Duncan Smith/Allen, 2008) ‘Early conditions’ are determinate
‘ The research we draw on for this pamphlet indicates that what happens inside the family, when a child is very young indeed, strongly determines how they will react to people outside the home, how ready they will be to learn and ultimately what kind of citizen they will become’ (p12)
Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (Duncan Smith/Allen, 2008) The Brain: Nurture not nature
‘‘… ..if a child is born into a home where they are nurtured, where conversation takes place, where someone reads to them (even at an age where they cannot understand) then , quite simply, their brain develops properly. Their social skills develop and they go off to nursery school able to learn from the next phase of their education. However, if they do not have that kind of environment, if they are not stimulated, if they sit in front of the television interminably, if there is constant anger and shouting,……..then the evidence we present shows that such a child will arrive at nursery school unable to communicate or relate properly to others than in a violent or otherwise dysfunctional way’. (p12)
‘ Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial : effectively, our brains are largely formed by what we experience in early life….scientific discoveries suggest it is nurture rather than nature that plays the lead role in creating the human personality…It has been said that ‘ the greatest gift for a baby is maternal responsiveness’ . The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop.’ (p57)
Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (Duncan Smith/Allen, 2008) A message for all of us
‘The transmission of parenting skills from generation to generation has changed considerably and while the middle classes can read the guide books, those with lower educational and social skills are finding parenting skills squeezed out as extended families reduce and more one-parent households have smaller knowledge bases on which to draw’ (p23).
Health policy under the coalition: Extending ‘parenting’ backwards
Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England published November 2010
A ‘life course approach’
‘ Resilience’ and ‘self-esteem’ as key to addressing public health problems (i.e psychological and emotional set as central to addressing smoking, drinking etc)
‘ The new approach will aim to build people’s self-esteem, confidence and resilience right from infancy – with stronger support for the early years’
‘ Even before conception and through pregnancy, social, biological and genetic factors accumulate to influence the health of the baby’
Early parenting as the key
‘ At birth, babies have around a quarter of the brain neurons of an adult. By the age of 3, the young child has around twice the number of neurons of an adult – making the early years critical for the development of the brain, language, social, emotional and motor skills’. ( Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England , p18, bold in Box)
Explicit family policy (1997 onwards)
According to social policy scholarship new Labour took a distinct approach:
‘ Before the early 1990s, UK governments avoided adopting any kind of
explicit family policy so that although policies affecting the family were
informed by a set of normative values and assumptions about the
family….these were implicit rather than explicit’ (Clarke 2007).
‘ Parenting’ came to the fore as core social policy problem, and so provision of:
[A] range of services and resources directly to young children in the form of integrated care and education, but also the provision of services which sought to change parenting (particularly maternal) practices: the promotion of breast feeding, cessation of smoking in pregnancy, and encouraging parents to relate to their children in specific ways – reading to them, playing and adopting specific disciplinary strategies’. (Churchill and Clarke, p43)
In sociological terms, ‘parent determinism’ / the medicalisation of social policy
Health policy (1997 onwards)
Health issues addressed less and less in their own terms
e.g. infant feeding, pregnancy, linked more and more to explanations for poverty and social inequality
‘ The brain’ as emergent theme
‘ The child’s brain develops rapidly in the first two years of life, and is influenced by the emotional and physical environment as well as by genetic factors. Early interactions directly affect the way the brain is wired, and early relationships set the ‘thermostat’ for later control of the stress response. This all underlies the significance of pregnancy and the first years of life, and the need for mothers and fathers to be supported during this time’.
‘ There is good evidence that the outcomes for both children and adults are strongly influenced by the factors that operate during pregnancy and the first years of life. We have always known this, but new information about neurological development and the impact of stress in pregnancy, and further recognition of the importance of attachment, all make early intervention and prevention an imperative’. ( The Child Health Promotion Programme, Pregnancy and the first five years of life , DH 2008)
Family policy under the coalition: parent training
Establishing a new programme of early years education ‘The Foundation Years’ covering the period conception to five
Regular assessment of all pre-school children focussing on their social and emotional development
A national parenting programme
Numbering school year groups from birth
Creation of an Early Intervention Foundation
Expansion of ‘Nurse Family Partnerships’
Same as 19thC? (Blaming the poor for poverty/phrenology/eugenic sort of thinking)
Modification of a biologised account of social problems: ‘the brain’ which is organic but professionalised ‘nurture’ as solution (‘nurturing nature’)
More generalised sense that nothing reliable about ‘the family’ any more – relationship counselling as precursor to ‘parent training’
Thoroughgoing ‘medicalisation’ of family life, and especially the expression of emotion; love as an ‘early intervention’ that can be calibrated and administered in appropriate doses
Thoroughgoing, pro-active assault on the idea of privacy; this is unprecedented