Duchess of Cambridge says early years should be 'on par with the other great social challenges' in keynote speech

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·5 min read

Watch: Duchess of Cambridge delivers speech on Early Years Development

The Duchess of Cambridge has called for Early Years development to be “on par with the other great social challenges and opportunities of our time” in a keynote speech hailed as a milestone moment.

Kate, 38, has made Early Years work a key part of her royal portfolio for several years, but Friday’s message at an online forum held by the Royal Foundation marked an ambitious move for the duchess.

The foundation, which encompasses the work of both Kate and her husband Prince William, commissioned an extensive survey and surrounding work, from pollsters Ipsos MORI, to assess what the public knew about the importance of Early Years development.

The results will be the basis of the “ambitious plans” Kate will announce in 2021 to make her hope that society will view the first five years of a child’s life as vitally important.

In her speech she said: “People often ask why I care so passionately about the Early Years. Many mistakenly believe that my interest stems from having children of my own.

“While of course I care hugely about their start in life, this ultimately sells the issue short.

(Kensington Palace)
The Duchess wants the same importance given to Early Years as other social challenges. (Kensington Palace)

“Parenthood isn't a prerequisite for understanding the importance of the early years.

“If we only expect people to take an interest in the early years when they have children, we are not only too late for them, we are underestimating the huge role others can play in shaping our most formative years too.

“Over the last decade I, like many of you, have met people from all walks of life.

“I have seen that experiences such as homelessness, addiction, and poor mental health are often grounded in a difficult childhood.

“But I have also seen, how positive protective factors in the early years can play a critical role in shaping our futures too.

“And I care hugely about this.”

The duchess made a speech on her research. (Kensington Palace)
The Duchess made a keynote speech on research she commissioned during an online forum. (Kensington Palace)

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She went onto explain that science shows “early years are more pivotal for future health and happiness, than any other period in our lifetime”.

The duchess also quoted figures that show 40% of pupils arrive at school below their developmental goals, and the cost of late intervention is about £17bn.

More than 500,000 people responded to the duchess’s online survey, 5 Big Questions on the Under Fives, which ran for a month from January this year.

In addition to the survey, the Royal Foundation carried out work in families’ homes, before the coronavirus pandemic, face-to-face surveys and interviews and then another online survey to assess the impact of COVID-19.

Watch: Duke and Duchess of Cambridge discuss experiences of parenting

Read more: Duchess of Cambridge's survey finds 'children's futures aren't determined at birth'

Mother-of-three Kate said together the work was the “UK's biggest ever study on the early years” and the results were “critical”.

Speaking about how the work would be used, she said: “Firstly, if parents are struggling to prioritise their own wellbeing how can we better support them?

“Secondly, what is at the root of why parents feel so judged?

“Thirdly, how can we address parental loneliness, which has dramatically increased during the pandemic, particularly in the most deprived areas?

“And finally, if less than a quarter of us understand the unique importance of a child's first five years, what can we do to make this better known?

“We must do all we can to tackle these issues and to elevate the importance of the early years, so that together we can build a more nurturing society.”

The duchess will make a speech on the survey. (Kensington Palace)
The Duchess during a video call with the team at Ipsos MORI. (Kensington Palace)

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Kate also thanked parents for their work raising children and said it was “brave” for those supporting families to work hard on something that would not show results for another generation.

She closed her message by saying: “But what you do isn't for the quick win - it is for the big win.

“It is for a happier, healthier society as well as happier, healthier children.

“Only by working together can we bring about lasting change for the generations to come.

“Because I truly believe, big change starts small.”

The work has been called the duchess’s “milestone moment”.

The duchess's survey got more than 500,000 responses. (Kensington Palace)
The Duchess's survey got more than 500,000 responses. (Kensington Palace)

Kate started her Early Years work nine years ago, and since then has had three children of her own - George, Charlotte and Louis.

While she was promoting the survey, she admitted to feeling mum guilt, and said there were things she would have done differently based on what she had learned since her first pregnancy.

The duchess hopes to spark a nationwide conversation on early years with her research, and her work has already been well received by several organisations.

Lucy Peake, chief executive of charity Grandparents Plus, which works with kinship carers, said: “We see every day through our work with kinship carers, how the impact of trauma in children’s early years can affect them for many years. Often grandparents or other family members stepped in to raise a relative’s child because of parental drug or alcohol misuse, poor mental health, domestic abuse or when a parent dies.

“There is an urgent need to improve support for kinship care families. Currently, they are overlooked and poorly supported by public authorities and this is putting more children at risk of entering the care system or struggling with the consequences of their early experiences as they get older.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “At a time when many parents of young children have been cut off from their normal sources of help, and can only seek limited support from family and friends, it is vital that the Government recognises the value of the early years and ensures that the vital services that provide such important support to parents and families across the country are able to continue to do so.”