The Preventative Spend: what’s wrong with a focus on the early years?

Professor Howard Sercombe, Strathclyde University

Professor Howard Sercombe

Professor Howard Sercombe

Well, nothing.  Unless that is all you do. Unless it unbalances investment in development so there isn’t any money left for anything else.

The focus on the early years is a result of very effective lobbying based on recent developments in neuroscience, which found that the development of brain circuitry does not happen in a regular, linear way, but surges and levels off and surges again.  If children’s learning environments are poor (or chaotic, or violent) while a surge is going on, this can have long term consequences for the way their brain works.  The first three years, (and the period just before puberty) are surge years.  Investing in children’s care and education in these periods just makes sense.  And it should, all things being equal, cost less in the long term.  This is the Early Years approach.

Actually, some of the information is not so recent.  Early work on developmental windows indicated that there were fairly narrow periods in a child’s development when their brain is available for hardwiring certain functions, and if you miss that window, the opportunity is gone for ever.  We now think that seriously underestimates the flexibility (the neuroscientists call it plasticity) of the human brain. It was based on experiments with blinded kittens and human beings are a bit different.

However, it isn’t the whole story.  Certainly, the development of new brain circuits levels off around puberty.  But there is also an interesting story about what happens in the brain in the teenage years.

The problem with the massive proliferation of circuitry in childhood is that it isn’t very efficient: a bit like having too many programs running on a computer.  In the teenage years (roughly 14-23) the brain goes through a process of streamlining to make it more efficient.  Two processes are involved in this.  First, the brain stops using circuits that aren’t used very much: neuroscientists talk about this as ‘pruning’ or ‘editing’.  As the old slogan goes, use it or lose it. Second, certain circuits are selected for special treatment to make them hundreds of times faster and cleaner.  This involves coating the neural fibres with an insulating sheath made of a fatty material called myelin. Kind of like putting tarmac on a road.

We don’t yet know how circuits are selected for myelination, but it is likely to be a combination of genetics in strong interaction with the environment, especially the social environment.  Different environments will dictate which genes are switched on, as well as impacting directly on brain structure.  A logical guess is that the organism decides which circuits to keep or enhance and which ones to get rid of in response to its environment.

So.  Investigating in magnificent circuitry through world-class learning environments for little kids seems a bit of a waste of time if teenagers’ environments are poor, neglectful, chaotic or hostile.  It’s a bit like building a library collection in which you have the best librarians in the world in charge of acquisitions but culling and disposals decisions are done by the janitor.  And he only likes books with pictures.

Two take-home points.

One, the early-years lobby has done a great job, but has probably over-stated the case a bit.  The human brain is incredibly flexible, and a difficult childhood doesn’t necessarily mean you are doomed for ever.

Second, the youth work lobby has been slow to get onto the neuroscience arguments, and slower to use them in lobbying on young people’s behalf.  We need to get out more.



Whit’s gaun on? Where do the guid ideas go to grow?

Kim Scott, Community Arts…Community Educator…Community Development worker; Humanitarian, Activist.

When I attend meetings about activism, youth work, and community development challenges and changes I wonder constantly, ‘Whit is gaun on?’

As I interconnect with others at training-of-trainers events and Youth in Action seminars, and see the potential courses for young people, youth workers and other professionals, I feel inspired by the great enthusiasm and ideas. But most importantly I feel inspired by the action around the people I come into contact with.

During my time at a most welcoming and rewarding course in the Czech Republic in June 2013, called The Lighthouse, I was surrounded by 23 people talking about action: practical change through revolutionising systems and structures, challenging our own thinking and the ways we all communicate with each other in work, in play, and within our community.Lighthouse

It was there that one of the trainers produced a most beautiful picture of interlinking circles. As I picked up this piece of paper I felt very drawn to it, and when I asked my trainer what it was, she told me – to my joy and surprise – that it was a visual representation of Sociocracy. This was something I had only just started to tap into, so I felt it was very fortuitous to have been able to attend this YIA conference and meet this person, and to have this wonderful picture in my hand.

‘So what?’ I hear you exclaim, ‘We have little time enough to read things,’ and I do not wish to lead you along without cause. I offer a piece (like wi jam) of an idea to something very current, fresh and transparent to ‘Whit is gaun’ on, right here in Scotland!

Since the end of August, myself and four others have been brought together by chance or fate to build, generate, and promote a conference on Sociocracy – also known as Dynamic Self Governance, or DSG. We are doing all the work for free in whatever spare time we have.

We have a leading professional and trainer in the field, John Buck, coming to Edinburgh on the 23rd October and Glasgow on 24th October, bringing with him a toolkit of information broken up into workshops introducing the subject, concept, and practical experience of Dynamic Self Governance. (Some prefer this term to ‘Sociocracy’, as the use of ‘Socio-’ has negative connotations for many Americans.)

As a team, we have created this website, where you can find information, contact us, and book your place at one of the events.

We want as many people as possible to have the chance to tap into this as yet unheard-of, but transformative, transparent, and mutually beneficial way of working together and communicating – whether in an organisation, business, voluntary group, school, government, or together at home.

We are sending out this invitation to one and all, as it is for us all, to sign up to something that could be a stepping stone towards creating a better way of doing things for you and your professional, living, breathing world.

We have a huge intention for a Give&Share economy. However, we must cover our basic costs for trainers, accommodation, travel, refreshments and administration, which so far are mainly from our own pocket!

Please pass this on to as many people, organisations, committees, networks and friends as possible. This could offer us all a piece of the jigsaw towards how we wish to organise ourselves. We are investing not only money here, but also our enthusiasm and intention for a better world for us all.


Community Arts…Community Educator…Community Development worker; Humanitarian, Activist.

The Independence Referendum: “the art of the possible”

Kyle Thornton MYSP, Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament

Kyle Thornton MYSP

Kyle Thornton MYSP

It is often said that politics is “the art of the possible.” Politics can be everything and anything, opportunity and hope, democracy and empowerment.

Another cliché we hear on a regular basis is that young people are not interested in politics.

The two phrases don’t appear to match.

In our experience of engaging with young people about issues that they care about, young people are passionate, driven, creative and compassionate. But perhaps a more accurate version of the second statement is true: most young people are not interested in today’s party politics, as it is represented presently, both by political parties and the national media. Modern politics is currently characterised by party political spats, media wars and expenses scandals. Whether this is actually the case is another debate entirely, but this is certainly how modern politics is perceived by many young people, and the wider public. Of course they won’t be interested in this type of politics. How could they be? How does it affect their lives?  How is it relevant? Why should they participate?

Within this negative perception of politics somewhere lies the real opportunity of this referendum, the reasons of which I will come back to.

As I mentioned previously, the Scottish Youth Parliament practices a different type of politics, and portrays a different perception of politics. We are a non-partisan, youth led organisation which debates and campaigns on the issues young people are passionate about. Our manifesto “Change the Picture” received nearly 43,000 responses which resulted in the endorsement of 49 different policy statements by young people. 67,000 votes were cast in the last set of Scottish Youth Parliament elections. This categorically shows that when young people are presented with the opportunity to participate in a more positive form of politics, that utilises their passion and potential and where they can see the relevance of what they are involved in, they participate and contribute in spades.

Whatever the result of the referendum next Autumn, there can be no doubt that it is a historic moment. It is a once-in-a-life time opportunity for the people of Scotland to shape the type of society they wish to live and work in for generations. As the future generation, it is vitally important that young Scots take this opportunity to have their say, whatever their preference might be.

But there is a danger… There is a danger that the debate could descend into the type of modern politics that we know young people are not engaged in, and the type in which they will not participate. A party political spat, which focuses less on tangible issues that affect our lives, and more on point scoring.

But there is also a real opportunity… There is a real opportunity to fundamentally shift how we think about politics, and how we engage our young people in the referendum. In order to achieve this, the Scottish Youth Parliament believe that both sides of the campaign need to vastly increase their efforts to present their arguments in a way that is accessible and relevant for young people, in a way that focuses less on undermining the other side, and more on how their respective proposals will impact our lives positively. The referendum presents the perfect opportunity to bring about a change in: how representatives practice politics; how the media reports politics; and, how the rest perceive and engage in politics.

If we are successful, not only will young people turn out to vote in the referendum next Autumn, but we will inspire a new phase of political participation that will stretch into the future. A politics that is truly “the art of the possible.”