“Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old” screamed the headline in the Telegraph this week. Posting the article on Facebook sparked a flurry of fascinating discussion, ranging from eugenics and normalisation through to private education and Philip Larkin. Some of it rather took me by surprise…
Whereas I had, perhaps naively, assumed that the knowledge of how we could better target resources on preventative interventions to those who most need support, others saw this as a sinister development.
I realised from the outset that the Telegraph had, as is their way, taken a particularly unpleasant slant on the research to blame these people in a barely disguised throwback to the Victorian notion of the ‘undeserving poor’. How else can one explain opinions (rather misleadingly presented as ‘news’) like this:
“A simple test at the age of three can determine whether children will grow up to be a burden on society, needing excessive welfare, ending up in jail or becoming obese.”
I had not really considered that this evidence, in the wrong hands (or in the ‘wrong minds’) might provide the justification for writing off children as young as 3 as criminals. Nor had I envisaged how this research might be used to ostracise young children who fail to conform to socially prescribed notions of what is ‘normal’. The authors of the research (and not the Telegraph article) though clearly had, referencing the “…warnings (that) are issued about the myth of early-childhood determinism…”
While, as many pointed out, it is not a new idea to suggest that you can accurately predict future outcomes by looking at the characteristics or test results of young children. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (my particular favourite) and a growing body of evidence on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) support the social determinants model of health inequality.
The social determinants of health are, according to the World Health Organisation “the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”
What the WHO doesn’t tell you is how political perspectives can take you from evidence of childhood experience and life outcomes to characterising children as deviant scroungers.
Reporting the same research, the BBC felt it appropriate to point out that “the researchers stress that children’s outcomes are not set at the age of three.”
Now this post was not intended to be about epistemology and the search for knowledge and truth – I’ll leave that to Karl Popper. Nor was it supposed to be about journalistic standards and the way facts are distorted by shoddy hacks and ideologues. It was supposed to be about the way that evidence can enable a more targeted and insight-led deployment of resources. If we are able to identify people that might need support or be at risk in the future then surely investment in preventative interventions is a good idea.
What I have learned is that the values and views of the world which underpin our approach are crucial. If you start with the view that people are inherently good and that with support they can achieve great things the way you might interpret these research findings will completely be completely different to those who see the poor and vulnerable as ‘broken’. Jude Habib has eloquently explained why we need to challenge this ‘deficit language’ and start adopting a strength-based approach which recognises and nurtures people’s talents and capabilities.
Where some see evidence that can inform a sensible way to target support to those who need it, others see it as a reason to write people off. In my work at Social Engine we advocate an evidence-based and insight-led approach but this discussion has reminded me that data are not and cannot be neutral, passive and objective when seen through the eyes of an individual.
For the epistemologists among you, the research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and can be found here.