A child's early experiences can determine the rest of its life, and yet children tend to be neglected by policy makers, says a Swiss study published on Tuesday.
The "Childhood and Youth in Switzerland" study is part of a national research programme looking at intergenerational relationships in a changing society. The aim is to provide decision-makers with facts and recommendations for the framing of policy.
The study has been issued at a time when debate is raging in Switzerland about how children should be brought up and educated, and what role the state should play.
The study found that while most children in Switzerland are basically well off materially and psychologically, a significant proportion still have a number of disadvantages to cope with.
"Inequality of opportunity is to a large extent conditioned by social origin, educational background, and the parents' professional situation," Stephan Egger, a sociologist at St Gallen university, told journalists.
This means that disadvantages are likely to be passed on from one generation to the next.
"Our thesis is that this must be seen as a political issue, and that as far as possible public money should be used and the state should take responsibility to try to get rid of these disparities," Professor Franz Schultheis, another of the study's authors, told swissinfo.
"If children have the bad luck to be born into a family living in precarious circumstances, you can't just abandon them to their fate and say it has nothing to do with politics."
But it is not only children's socio-economic situation which helps set the course of their future life. The way in which their parents bring them up also has a strong influence on both their physical and emotional health.
Children need to learn to take decisions early, and to have their voice heard in decisions affecting them, Schultheis explained. Children who enjoy parental support have good self-esteem, and not only achieve good marks at school, but develop positive social skills.
On the other hand, children brought up by parents who are over-strict or who are too detached, are more likely to see their lives as meaningless. Some of them are in danger of falling into drug abuse or even suicide.
The Swiss school system has a central role to play in evening out the disparities in society, the authors of the report believe. In particular they recommend that children should start school earlier. (At present they begin primary school no younger than the age of six.) They also criticise the early separation of children into academic and non-academic pathways, and want to make it easier for children to switch from one type of school to another.
Traditionally children who want to pursue an academic career move into the so-called "Gymnasium" at the end of compulsory schooling at 16, while others have the option of following vocational training.
An earlier school starting age is one of the proposals currently under debate as part of the move to harmonise the Swiss school system across the cantons. It is favoured by the cantonal ministers of education – education is organised at cantonal level in Switzerland – but has come strongly under attack by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, who see it as interference in the family.
But Schultheis pointed out that the state intervenes in the family through the very notion of compulsory schooling. Furthermore, historically it was only when children started to go to school that they started to be regarded as people in their own right.
"A child who spends all its time around adults is not seen as an individual person, and separating a child from its parents for a time can only be good for both sides," he said.
All round benefits
Schools train citizens. One group of children who are likely to experience a range of disadvantages are those in immigrant families. Earlier schooling is of particular benefit to them: not only does it help them get used to the culture of school, but it makes the child a bridge between the Swiss host culture and his or her own family and helps them all to integrate.
The new report is meant to be seen as a starting point, with more research taking place systematically in the future.
"All political decisions affect children," said Schultheis. "We need to take children's needs into account."
swissinfo, Julia Slater
National Research Programme 52
"Childhood and Youth in Switzerland" is the third of three reports produced as part of NRP 52.
The programme as a whole included 29 research projects.
The research was conducted from April 2003 to March 2007.
The first report was *Impulses for a political agenda" published in 2007.
The second report was "Generations in Switzerland", published in 2008.
NRP52 also sponsored an exhibition on show until September 14 at the National Museum in Zurich under the title: "Families – the constant is change"
National Research Programmes are conducted under the auspices of the Swiss National Science Foundation.
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