It is the legacy project that will define the Duchess of Cambridge, borne of a decade of work that has led her to describe the early years as “the social equivalent of climate change”.

The Duchess on Friday will launch the Centre for Early Childhood, a base from which to  “drive awareness and action” on the impact of the first five years of life, in a bid to transform society.

The centre is considered a landmark step in the Duchess’s work and a signal of her lifelong commitment to the subject, reflecting the future Queen’s “unique, long-term leadership position”.

Through its work, she said she aims to “change the way people think about early childhood”.

The centre will be based at the Royal Foundation’s offices at Kensington Palace and will initially employ around six permanent staff.

Royal aides said the Duchess, 39, was determined to elevate the status of the early years to be on a par with global issues such as the environment, championed by the Duke of Cambridge’s £50m Earthshot Prize. 

In numbers: The cost of lost opportunity

“The Duchess has made the observation that the more you learn about the science of early childhood, the more you realise that this is the social equivalent to climate change, but it is not discussed with the same seriousness or strategic intent that that issue is,” one said.

“So her mission for the last few years has been exploring what is the best way for her to build something, build relationships, her own knowledge, expertise, so that she can help position this work with that sort of importance.”

In a video message to be released on Friday to mark the launch, the Duchess described how her own understanding about the importance of early childhood started with adults, rather than children.

“It was about prevention,” she said. “I wanted to understand what more we could do to help prevent some of today’s toughest social challenges, and what more we could do to help with the rising rates of poor mental health.”

The Duchess, wearing a necklace engraved with her children’s initials, said that having spoken to psychiatrists, neuroscientists, practitioners, academics and parents, it had become clear that the “best investment” for future health and happiness was in the first five years of life.

The Duchess wears a necklace with her children's initials on it in a still image from her video message

“That is why today I am launching the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood,” she added.

“Working closely with others, the centre hopes to raise awareness of why the first five years of life are just so important for our future life outcomes, and what we can do as a society to embrace this golden opportunity to create a happier, more mentally healthy, more nurturing society. 

“By working together, my hope is that we can change the way we think about early childhood, and transform lives for generations to come. Because I truly believe big change starts small.”

A hub for life-long early years research

The Duchess is thought to be the first member of the Royal family to launch her own centre.

It is intended to act as a “permanent home”, allowing her to bring together a vast array of players, from academics to charities, to further explore the science around early childhood, raise awareness and foster collaboration.

One early focus will be the creation of a compelling campaign that teaches teenagers how a baby’s brain develops, arming them with crucial knowledge before they become parents themselves.

The launch marks the culmination of 10 years of work that began with the Duchess’s first patronage, Action on Addiction, leading her to look at family breakdown, then mental health before going further back to explore the school environment and then the early years.

Her research has shown that social challenges such as addiction, violence, family breakdown, homelessness and mental health have their roots in the earliest years of life.

The centre will be funded by supporters of the Royal Foundation, with a view to direct funding partnerships in the future.

Lord Hague, chairman of the Cambridges’ Royal Foundation, described the launch as a pivotal moment for the Duchess’s work.

“Her Royal Highness and The Royal Foundation are determined to help bring about lasting change for future generations,” he said.