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If you didn’t catch Neil O’Brien’s thought-provoking report for the Daily Telegraph last week, here’s another chance.

He begins by comparing the cognitive development of rich and poor children:

  • “By the time they are 62 months old, the cognitive development of the children of the richest 20% is 16 months ahead of children from the poorest 20%.”

What can explain this huge difference? Can it really be a direct function of particular levels of household income? O’Brien goes on to cite a variety of other differences between the lives of children from the poorest and richest quintiles of the population:

  • “Read to daily at age three: 45% v 78% … more than 3 hours a day of TV at age three: 27% v 5% … regular bedtimes at age three: 70% v 91% … strictly enforced rules at age three: 42% v 57% … breastfed 6 months or more: 14% v 38% … child exposed to smoke in home at age three: 34% v 4% … parent used recreational drugs since birth of child: 10% v 3% … mother obese at age five: 19% v 9% …”

What is to be done? O’Brien is refreshingly – if depressingly – honest about the lack of firm evidence:

  • “Add it all up, and these children are living in quite different social worlds. But is it the parents, the culture, and behaviour that is holding back poor kids? Or the economics? Or something else? …a lot of the gap is unexplained, and the research on this sort of thing is still quite limited.”

And yet, he does reach a clear conclusion – of a kind:

  • “…this doesn't necessarily mean that it is impossible to reduce the gap that already divides rich and poor children before they even start school. It just means we need to try some new approaches… The coalition has no money to roll out some big new national programme right now. And even if it did have lots of cash to spend, it would be a mistake to start sloshing it about until we are clearer about what actually works.”

So, let’s just see if we’ve got this right: When faced with a huge and complicated problem, governments should not, in fact, plough ahead with a single, centrally-determined, one-size-fits-all national programme, but instead experiment with a wide range of possible solutions and judge them on their practical outcomes. Yes?

Well, it’s a crazy idea, but it might just be worth a try.

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