Lisa Markwell: Never too early to start on child development

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There's always been anxiety about bringing up children – not helped by the competitive edge between many parents. "Oh, isn't Savannah walking yet? Marley's very steady on her feet now..." For those whose babies don't seem to be sprinting past the developmental milestones with the speed of Usain Bolt, it's all too easy to panic and bulk-buy Baby Einstein DVDs and state-of-the-art walkers with built-in flashcards.

So the news that children who fail to pass the the motor-skills tests – the early ones, before the age of one – will face difficulties in school and, quite probably, throughout the rest of their lives heightens the anxiety. Over the past decade 15,000 babies have been the subject of comprehensive research into early development by the Millennium Cohort Study from the University of London's Institute of Education. The ability to sit up, crawl and hold a pencil by nine months is vital, researchers discovered, to children being ready and able to concentrate, learn and share when they reach school age. Not being able to do these things leads, inevitably, to falling behind, frustration and negative labelling.

Of course no one, including those who carried out the study, could claim that all children develop at a uniform rate and just because little Johnnie is still rolling around on his changing mat doesn't mean he's doomed to a low-grade GCSE future. The delay, says lead researcher Ingrid Schoon, affects one in 10 babies and is not solely determined by the economic and social status of the parents, but it's tempting to see deprivation as a significant factor.

Should health visitors and/or social workers intervene early when babies are not receiving the stimulation they need? Remove children from homes where they are left in their cots or in front of the TV, and not encouraged to try holding a spoon, or shuffle round the living room?

It's a dangerously grey area, but one of which I have a small amount of experience. My wonderful daughter, vivacious and curious, bold and imaginative, came to live with me as she turned four, having had three years with her birth mother and one in foster care. The love and consistency she was shown in the latter did much to balance the neglect and damage done at the former, and I hope the seven years following her adoption have built on it. But in her secondary transfer year, it is clear that the woeful lack of attention early on – with speech, motor skills and just about everything else – has had a major impact. The study also points up that three-year-olds who are read to every day have a far better grasp of a variety of educational subjects at five. She certainly never had that.

Educational psychologists have told me what this new study backs up: it is impossible to catch up with or gloss over those gaps in the early building blocks of development. I will never know how her achievement level might have changed with a different start, or an earlier intervention. She might, just might, be one of the one-in-10.

Milestone-missing is sure to become another key election battleground, as part of a wider argument about how to police/protect parents and families. It will be debated in infinitesimal detail and with the probability of no clear solution. Between aggressive interference and benign neglect (by the authorities, not the parents) lies a possibility: factor in a gentle test for babies of nine months old as part of an extended post-natal care system. It won't catch those who move or avoid such "meddling", but it's got to be worth a try.

Can Carey – and her hair – resist the Hollywood fame game?

Just a few days till the Baftas, but already there are signs that we are losing our home-grown ingénue Carey Mulligan to the dark forces of Hollywood. The young star of An Education, nominated for Best Actress at both "our" awards and the Oscars, spoke with refreshing candour to The Independent on Sunday last week about her "bottom-heavy" figure – in much need of disguising, apparently – and how she can't stand her gamine Hepburn-esque hairstyle.

Carey has been a breath of fresh air on the world's red carpets with her dimples and boyish can't-find-the-brush brunette hairdo – at pleasing odds with her usually studious expression. But two days ago she turned up to the Oscar nominee lunch with her hair bleached blonde and teased into a cheeky-pixie arrangement.

It may be for a role, but she declared to the IoS interviewer that straight after the awards hoopla she was going skiing and starting to grow her mop out, so what's the truth? Come on, Carey, LA's got more than enough blondes.

Heading into the unknown

I was stopped in the street yesterday morning by a fellow-parent. Did I know that orchid fertiliser was the new drug of choice for teenagers? I did not. Her 17-year-old daughter hasn't indulged in what her friends are saying is "cheap cocaine", but apparently hordes are storming to garden centres for a high dealers have taken to calling plant food (real name: mephedrone). Depressing, but not, we said wearily, unexpected.

Legal highs like this have been on the agenda, if not the subject of legislation, for a while now. What is puzzling is which intrepid youngster/fool first tried it to find out whether it gave you a buzz, glossy green skin or, if one is less flippant, damaging side-effects. In my teenage day it was Do-Do bronchitis tablets that we all popped for pre-O-level pep, but they were at least fit for human consumption.

Earlier in the week another parent called with the news that his 14-year-old son had been caught with a bag of cannabis, which was causing him enormous worry. Agreed, but if for concerned parents knowledge is power, we know better where we are with weed than weed killer.

* Masterchef, which starts on BBC1 tonight, has been a must-watch for amateur cooks for years, but many are muttering darkly about giving it up this year. It has strayed so far from its early ideals of gifted home cuisine into venison jus and parmesan foam territory that it has become meaningless for most of us. Time for a competing competition in which members of the public make Victoria sponges, Eccles cakes and sausage rolls for our viewing pleasure. It taps into the nostalgia anyone over 40 has for school home economics, and might inspire Britons to stop the Greggs-ification of bakery and do it themselves... We can but hope.

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