What would a more equal society look like? It's the kind of question that rarely prompts a straightforward answer. But there is one image of equality that seems to have universal appeal: that of two infants born of different backgrounds yet facing equal chances in life. As the sociologist TH Marshall once noted, when you consider an image of a naked infant on weighing scales, "the idea of social class does not obtrude itself greatly".
You might think that ensuring every infant faces an equal start in life is a pretty obvious objective for public policy in a society as advanced and prosperous as ours. But the ability of policy-makers to fulfil such an objective is constrained by a reluctance to interfere in family matters.
In contrast to attitudes towards tackling poverty or protecting the unborn child from the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, the State considers itself to have a minimal role in relation to the parent-infant relationship. This is an area in which policy-makers have chosen to tread carefully, reluctant to interfere except in the most desperate of circumstances.
Yet research tells us that the family milieu has a significant and lasting impact on a child's development. Language development, for example, is strongly influenced by the amount and quality of verbal interaction parents have with their children in the first few months of life. As early as 22 months it is possible to detect significant differences in cognitive development according to social class differences researchers now consider to be as much to do with the nature of early experience as with innate differences in cognitive ability.
The relationship between parent and infant also shapes behavioural development: children with more secure early 'attachments' to their parents are less likely to be socially isolated and aggressive by the time they reach school age. Studies have found such children to be more resilient in the face of adversity. Conversely, a lack of emotional engagement between parent and infant is linked to behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other disruptive behaviours. In rare situations where infants do not form any relationship with a trusted adult, their development can deteriorate rapidly and dramatically.
Brain research is beginning to provide some evidence as to why the parent-infant relationship might be so crucial to child development. Research suggests that the number and quality of early interactions influence the development of critical neural pathways in the young brain. Such pathways are built from experience, with repeated daily interactions having the most impact on how the brain is 'wired'.
These early experiences affect how the brain develops, which in turn affects subsequent behaviour and learning. For example, it has been suggested that troubled early relationships can cause a child's brain to consume glucose to deal with stress, when glucose would otherwise be used for learning.
Many questions still remain as to the exact impact of parent-child interaction on an infant's development. But one thing is clear. If we are serious about giving children an equal start in life we cannot overlook the significance of the parenting role.
This would require policy-makers to be more prepared to cross the threshold into the private world of the family. As yet they have shown little stomach for doing so other than when family relationships are clearly in trouble.
The government has described its own family policy as being "neither a 'back to basics' fundamentalism, trying to turn back the clock, nor an 'anything goes' liberalism which denies the fact that how families behave affects us all." The result has been continued uncertainty about the extent to which public policy should encroach on family life.
A tentative consultation paper on the family was published in 1998 and the National Family and Parenting Institute was set up to help inform government thinking. But the government's family policy subsequently lost momentum. The lack of mainstream support for parents has yet to be addressed.
Support for 'problem' families has had greater prominence in the government's agenda. Policy-makers are more confident of the legitimacy of the State's involvement in family life in such circumstances, as demonstrated by David Blunkett's recent proposals for residential parenting classes to try to reduce teenage anti-social behaviour. Yet this emphasis on 'failing' families has reinforced a message that family support is about changing deviant behaviour. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of greater government intervention is not automatically welcomed by most parents.
At the same time parents are looking for more guidance about their role. Their desire to learn more about parenting and child development is demonstrated by an explosion in the number of parenting websites and a 30 per cent rise in sales of parent advice books in recent years.
Given what we now know about the significance of the parent-infant relationship, should policy makers leave lessons on the parenting role to the book market? Time and again studies show that parents would like to receive more help from the State but do not always feel comfortable sharing their anxieties and concerns with professionals.
In focus group research undertaken by the Institute for Public Policy Research last year, mothers and fathers stated a preference for a visit from a non-professional in the first few months after the birth of their child to help them with basic childcare and parenting skills. Lay workers are already helping parents in some parts of the country through 'community mothers' and Home Start schemes. Such services appear to be more in line with what parents want.
The continued reticence of policy-makers to cross the threshold into the private world of the family is constraining progress towards more equal life chances. Unless greater support is available to parents, the image of two infants facing an equal start in life will remain no more than a simple representation of a worthy, but unfulfilled, ambition.