The seeds for the Princess of Wales' interest in the early years were planted well over a decade ago. I remember joining engagements with the then Duchess of Cambridge in 2012 when she visited two schools in Oxford after becoming patron of an organisation called The Art Room — a non-profit using art therapy to help boost the confidence and self-esteem of young children.
Her visit followed months of engagements focused on similar themes. At each one Kate was eager to learn from the experts about how different modalities are able to help shape a child’s future and mental health. “It’s such an important time in their lives,” she told one of the teachers during her two hours with staff and pupils.
Chatting with her press secretary at the time, I was told how the duchess’s “keen interest” in childhood development will likely lead to projects focused on supporting the young.
A month earlier she had also taken on a patronage with Action on Addiction, a charity working with those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and the children affected by it. “Right now she is listening and learning… in the future she hopes to find practical ways to contribute,” the palace aide explained.
Since then, the Princess of Wales has carried out dozens of royal visits with ties to the wellbeing and early years development of children. On occasion she has also convened experts for roundtable sessions and privately studied the effects of difficult childhood experiences in early childhood years and how they are often the root cause for issues such as poor mental health, family breakdown, addiction, and homelessness.
Watch: Kate joins market traders to discuss early years development campaign
As an engaged mother-of-three it is clear she has found a subject that not only resonates with her and her interests, but one that she would like to leave her mark on.
After nine years of engagements focused on the work being done by others in this field, 2020 finally saw Kate focus her efforts on trying to create impact of her own, launching a 5 Big Questions survey to see where help is needed the most.
“My ambition is to provide a lasting change for generations to come,” she said. A year later she announced the launch of the Centre for Early Childhood – a hub within the Royal Foundation designed to help push for increased awareness of and new research into the impact of the early years – alongside their first inaugural report which highlighted six areas with opportunities to make a difference.
This week saw the release of the centre’s first major project. The Shaping Us awareness drive aims to “revolutionise” the way people in Britain think about supporting families and young children. Starting on Friday, a 90-second claymation short film depicting how a girl’s development from birth to five and how it’s shaped by interactions and her environment will be screened in movie theatres across the country.
The launch event at the Bafta headquarters in London had all the polish and glamour required to ensure front-page dominance. The following day’s visit to Leeds, where Kate visited Kirkgate market and met university students studying child psychology, also delivered steady coverage.
“As you all know, by building a supportive, nurturing world around children and those caring for them, we can make a huge difference to generations to come,” she said in a speech. “Because fundamentally healthy, happy children shape a healthy, happy future.”
It’s an extremely important subject. But after 12 years of work, the goods being delivered right now feel light. Some within the early years sector have already voiced frustrations. “We are well accustomed to MPs and royalty visiting early years settings, praising the invaluable work of practitioners… but nothing is done,” a statement from the Practitioners of the Early Years Sector group says. “The time has long passed for ‘awareness’. We need action – long-term investment and funding in the early years.”
And this is where the Princess of Wales will no doubt find herself stuck. Because while elevating the importance of helping children in their first five years of life to thrive is certainly necessary, there are very few options available to Kate when it comes to actually helping solve the main issue at the heart of Britain’s early years crisis – funding.
Budgets for preventative services for children in the country have been slashed by more than £400m since 2015 . And 4,000 early childcare providers have shut down in the last year alone due to chronic underfunding.
Cuts have also seen the closures of children’s centres nationwide, despite the fact they help prevent more serious social services intervention at later stages in childhood. Britain’s social care system, which is already on its knees, estimates that over 15,000 young people will be taken into care over the next three years.
As the country falls deeper into its cost of living crisis, and childcare providers raise prices due to funding pressures, is Kate’s awareness project really able to do much at all?
If anything, Shaping Us exposes the ineffectiveness that the Royal Family's charity work can have. Because it is almost impossible to make an impact in this field, or even usher in the smallest of change, without considering all the social factors that have an impact on early development.
And that cannot be done without stepping into policy or politics — the one thing Kate can’t do as a working member of the Royal Family.
Two years ago The Art Room charity Kate first visited in 2012 shut down its facilities for good after it became no longer financially sustainable. Shrinking school budgets from the government were to blame, and while Kate was able to shine a light on their work through the odd royal engagement, her limitations as a royal patron meant that she would never be able to lobby to keep it going.
This week’s awareness drive launch is the third “landmark” announcement by the Princess of Wales on this topic in as many years. The message is essential, and she makes a serious case, but no matter how many versions of it we hear, Kate’s hope and a wish are unlikely to bring the necessary solutions. Given that Kensington Palace says this is her “life’s work”, I hope she can eventually prove me wrong.