ABSTRACT: Professor Clyde Hertzman is a social epidemiologist with a distinguished scientific career, who has devoted the last 15 years to both study and action on arguably the most important determinant of lifelong health and function: early life. He has published many papers demonstrating the close links between early life experiences, especially the social environment around and within the family, and the achievement of full human potential across socio-economic groups in modern society. Furthermore, he has consistently expounded the view that early life is, of all the determinants of health, by far the most amenable to policies and programs to reduce socio-economic inequalities in health, in any reasonable timeframe. Proven pre-primary child development programs can ’level the playing field of life’ for a birth cohort within just a few years of initiation.
Over the last several years, Prof. Hertzman has established and directed the Human Early Learning Partnership at UBC in Vancouver, an applied research and knowledge transfer/exchange unit, funded from public sources. It is dedicated to the population-level measurement, and prompt community feedback, of novel indicators of child developmental health ’ especially the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a twenty-minute fully validated questionnaire that assesses ’readiness to learn,’ which is now completed by kindergarten teachers in every British Columbia school every few years. [This instrument has been clearly demonstrated to predict primary school achievement, and in turn ’life success,’ which correlates highly to lifelong health and function ’ it is therefore a sensitive indicator of social inequalities in health at the community level.]
The EDI results from all British Columbia’s far-flung communities are extensively analysed by HELP, using in particular data depiction methods accessible to lay persons. These data are then fed back promptly to local communities, including school boards, parents and teachers. Part of the analysis allows these takeholders to judge how their local children entering school that year are doing in developmental terms, compared to both previous birth cohorts in that setting, and same-aged cohorts of children in socio-economically matched settings across the province. Similar programs of population-wide measurement utilizing the EDI are in place in parts of Australia, and are being piloted in several other countries.
A key benefit to participating communities is the complete separation of these measurements from the contentious issue of school performance per se. Because these measures are taken when indergartners (typically five years of age in Canada) are only a few months into their first formal school experience, the results cannot be used to ’blame the schools for below-average performance.’ Rather, the results are invaluable as resources, to local schools and communities, in advocating for additional resources to both improve future birth cohorts’ readiness to learn at school entry, via pre-primary child development programs of established effectiveness, and remedial instruction for those already in school. The HELP program thus works to the advantage of the disadvantaged, at a local level, while also providing sensitive ’ and potentially promptly reversible ’ measures of human developmental health, at any level of aggregation in an entire population, that is relevant to program and policy decision-making.