Royal Corner

"The Children's Princess" Shares Her Crown

The Duchess of Cambridge's Early Years survey is a legacy which will define her for generations to come, but more so, change a generations fortunes for the future.

NOVEMBER 29th, 2020

© The Royal Foundation


truly believe big change… starts small.”

In those final words from her key note address at The Royal Foundation’s Early Years Online Forum, the Duchess of Cambridge ended a passionate speech, which had been effectively nine years in the making. With a confident delivery that had you gripped from beginning to end, Catherine was surmising the findings from her landmark Early Years survey – 5 Big Questions. Over half-a-million people took part, making it the largest ever of its kind, and yet the Duchess made it clear that this was just the beginning – that ultimately the resulting conversation was the starting gun, not the finish line.

“I believe the early years should be on par with the other great social challenges and opportunities of our time,” she said in her address, “and next year we will announce ambitious plans to support this objective.”

The Duchess of Cambridge's Key Note Address on the Early Years - © The Royal Foundation

These “ambitious plans” will strive to implement change across the social construct of early childhood, offering support to both children and parents. Yet, with the results now public, how impactful has the Duchess of Cambridge been, and will her work with the Early Years offer hope to parents and professionals who have felt the cold hand of abandonment?

Lisa Appleton, a single mother from Leeds, Yorkshire, sets the tone with her first sentence: “I felt relief, genuinely.” Lisa’s son Jack is four and had started school fulltime last September. At first, she felt confident as a new mother, yet when the pandemic struck that confidence began to crack. “I work from home now and when the schools closed, I couldn’t find any childcare so was juggling being a mum with my work commitments and it just became too much. I felt like I began to prioritise my workload over Jack and the guilt that left was overwhelming.”

The most devastating moment for Lisa came after she found her son playing with his toys beside a “makeshift mum” – a creation of pillows and household items shaped to resemble her. For her, was this the moment when she felt like she had failed?

“No,” she answers. “It was worse than that, I felt like I was failing and couldn’t stop it, couldn’t find anywhere to help me see that there were countless other parents in my shoes.”

Eventually, Lisa confided in her work colleague Melissa, who admitted she was experiencing the same predicament. “The joy – that sounds bad, but it was joy – that I felt knowing that I wasn’t alone was a “wow” moment for me. It really opened my eyes to how shared our parental experiences are.”

The admittance between both mothers ignited an idea; therefore, six months ago, every Friday, both ladies speak on Zoom over how they’re feeling, what they’re struggling with, and as Lisa describes, “just generally chat.”

“When I heard that the Duchess was planning on revealing her survey results, I wanted to see what they said as I was one of the thousands who completed the questions,” says Lisa. “I read through the 5 Big Insights on social media and was amazed at how each point described exactly how I felt. The relief that gives me, and I’m sure for many others, that we aren’t and never were alone provides such a confidence boost, and I personally owe Kate so much for that.”

The Duchess of Cambridge answers questions from the public on the Early Years - © KensingtonRoyal

“I love her to be honest!” admits another mum, Jess, when asked about the Duchess of Cambridge. “I am a little biased though as I once met her on an engagement years ago when she visited Yorkshire with William and Harry for the launch of the Tour de France.”

Jess is also a teaching assistant at the local Primary School, so she sees the impact of Catherine’s work from both sides. “She’s just a natural really. You can tell she comes alive around kids, so you can’t help but feel that her work is authentic when it comes to the Early Years. I watched her speech at the forum and thought it was really inspiring, and it does feel like the beginning of some big changes.”

The Duchess of Cambridge’s work with children is well documented; it has, in areas, shaped her royal role and earned her the touching label of ‘The Children’s Princess’, yet her approach and work has also earned her plaudits from those across the country who share the Duchess’ devotion to the Early Years. One expert is Jen Lexmond, founder and CEO of the award-winning parenting app EasyPeasy.

The app, which launched at the same time as the Duchess released her survey’s findings, provides parents with practical and playful tips for everyday life to boost parent’s wellbeing and help the cognitive and language development of children aged between 0-5.

Kate answers questions on the Early Years from the public - © The Royal Family

“What the Duchess of Cambridge is showing is that there’s this really strong and quite vast evidence base for the importance of the Early Years,” explains Jen. “The Duchess’ research is super welcome because hopefully that's going to keep it in the spotlight for a long time to come.”

The detailed report from the survey was condensed into 5 Big Insights, each one very much felt by parents and teachers. “The third point, showing 70% of parents feel judged by others and how that negatively affects your mental health really rang true,” says Lauren Thompson, a local primary school teacher. “We’ve known for a while that there’s been issues that have needed addressing over the early years. I’ve found myself comforting parents, specifically single parents, who just feel consistently abandoned by those who are in positions of power who could offer help.”

For Jen Lexmond, who has worked for over a decade in creating policies within government to help benefit the Early Years, her position as a commissioner on a cross party Early Years Commission, which is chaired by Edward Timpson (Conservative MP for Eddisbury) and Sharon Hodgson (Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West), has been to try and influence those people in powerful positions Lauren refers to.

So, for someone who has worked closely within government, how easy is it to convince politicians to support the Early Years?

“Unfortunately, it really isn't,” Jen admits. “What has been forthcoming is the rhetoric. I mean, the Early Years is not a partisan issue, it’s up for everyone across the political spectrum to get on board with this.”

It is this aspect which makes the Duchess of Cambridge’s passionate advocacy for the Early Years so influential. In her speech, Catherine revealed that 40% of children will arrive at school with below the expected levels of development. “The social cost of late intervention has been estimated to be over £17 billion a year,” revealed the Duchess. “The Early Years are therefore not simply just about how we raise our children; they are in fact about how we raise the next generation of adults.”

The Duchess revealed the survey's results yesterday. - © KensingtonRoyal

This is a sentiment which Jen also shares. “When you take a step back and look at the global perspective, we know that 85% to 90% of a child's brain is developed by age 5, by the time they get to school. But if you look globally, governments are spending on average just 6% of their education budgets on Early Years development.”

She continues, “If you look at the salaries that we pay to Early Years’ practitioners, as opposed to those practitioners throughout the human life cycle, for older children and young people, you see the same type of inversion. Yet the cost that it would take to actually reduce the problem is such a small fraction of the costs.”

That cost Jen mentions, and the Duchess of Cambridge subtly refers to, is around $13.00 in return for every $1 invested into a disadvantaged child's early years. The numbers ultimately speak for themselves.

With the 5 Big Questions survey now completed and the results publicly available, the Duchess will now begin implementing “ambitious plans” next year. These plans are expected to take the Early Years into the highest echelons of social, economic and political conversations. Yet, what is clear from Catherine, is that the investment in young children incorporates all facets of these areas. It is ultimately about providing those who work and live within the sector – teachers, professionals – and parents, the political and national platform to be heard.

“My final message is a thank you; thank you to all the families and parents and carers for the important work you do every single day in raising our children,” thanked the Duchess. “Thank you, to those of you working to support these families and their children. To do what you do takes hard work, commitment, and vision. It is a brave thing to believe in an outcome; in a world even, that might not be fully felt for a generation or more.”

The Duchess visits Cardiff earlier this year to launch the 5 Big Questions Survey - © Getty Images

Ultimately, what the Duchess of Cambridge is reminding society, is that it truly does take a village to raise a child. The belief that parents are solely responsible for their children’s upbringing no longer rings completely true. In setting out her stall – and an impressive one it is – Catherine is unapologetically steering the conversation of the Early Years into areas, and social arenas, previously thought impossible. It is no longer about what you should do, but what we can do together. The EasyPeasy app is the sheer definition of this, linking parents with experts and peers who they can connect with on a professional and personal level for help and support. Every campaign the Duchess has launched stems from this notion too.

Catherine is actively using her position and voice in a way we’ve never really seen before. Her growing confidence is obvious, and the near decade long commitment to the Early Years has provided her with knowledge which delves deeper than just public engagements.

“It’s the fact she knows what she’s talking about,” describes Daniel Alvarez, a father of two twin boys, Elijah and Jonah. “It isn’t just “let’s talk and smile for a picture”; you can genuinely feel the passion she has. It’s hard not to take notice of it, and I know there will be many parents like me who feel grateful to have her onboard.”

For Jen Lexmond, the Duchess’ speech wasn’t just inspiring, it also enables a greater conversation to take place and develop. “You couldn’t come away from that event [The Royal Foundation Early Years Forum] without feeling inspired, and I felt particularly hopeful to have somebody with her gravitas leading and bringing this into the mainstream,” she says. “Seeing the Early Years across the headlines and in all these national newspapers; that’s something which the Early Years just doesn't really see – that level of visibility.”

So how important is the exposure Catherine has brought to the professional community and workers within the Early Years?

Jen explains. “I do think that it's huge because political leadership and political will power, whether we like it or not, doesn't necessarily come from the evidence base; it comes from public opinion and therefore I think this is why this strategy from The Royal Foundation is such an important element in the overall fight for improving investment in the Early Years. We have to make this a topic of national conversation and I really can’t think of anyone better than the Duchess of Cambridge to do that. It’s really fantastic.”

Kate also visited Ireland to promote the survey's launch. - © Getty Images

There can be no denying the legacy being carved out for the Duchess of Cambridge in this field. This is a project that isn’t just a sprint, it is a marathon, and one with which all those involved can cross the finish line together. And whilst the world’s historians and experts look to determine what that legacy looks like and how effective it will be, the true position of that success will be outlined by those most affected by her work – the families of the future.

“It’s a relief to hear someone like Kate, not only speaking about this, but actually doing something about it,” says mum, Lisa Appleton. “Like I said, I took part in the survey, and to know that it could potentially change the state of things is a pretty good feeling.”

That is a feeling shared by Jen. “Catherine said something in her speech,” she concludes, as we come to the end of our conversation. “She was talking to practitioners in the sector, and she said how brave it was that they were choosing to invest their time and their energy into these first years of life, knowing that the impact of it would come a long time into the future. Then she said the Early Years is not for the quick win but the big win. That's how I would sum it up, because this is not an issue for political short-termism, this is the biggest issue and that's why I’ve dedicated my career to it. That’s what the Duchess nailed when she said that.”

For the teaching community, there is a mirroring feeling of optimism. “The Duchess of Cambridge has become somewhat of a lifeline, it’s a genuine comfort to know someone like her is fighting your corner,” explains Lauren Thompson. “There’s an excitement for the future that things could now head in a new direction; that all of us can feel a part of the change. I’m certainly looking forward to the ambitious plans she mentioned.”

The Duchess of Cambridge’s unique touch ensures that her work will not only last for generations, but will influence future generations too. Across the entire class spectrum, whether they’re experts, scientists, teachers, parents or children; the benefits of Catherine’s work will be accessible to all – a universal approach from a future Queen Consort whose position will be to represent every facet of Britain’s society. She has stayed true to the mantra of her royal approach in truly believing “big change… starts small.” In doing so, she has emphasised her position, not only as “The Children’s Princess”, but one who will willingly and confidently share her crown.

- To read more on The Royal Foundation's work in the Early Years, you can visit their website here.

- To learn more about the EasyPeasy App, you can visit their website here and also download the app.

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