Children should begin formal education on a level playing fieldby Peter Lampl / October 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
There has been a lot of focus on education policy of late, what with the grammar schools furore earlier this year and the row over tuition fees. But one area has received rather less attention: early years education. This simply won’t do. When it comes to tackling educational inequality, this may be the most important area of all.
Early years childcare and education touch on many aspects of social policy, from education to the labour market to the benefits system. It is a tricky area to get right. Our latest research shows that England has a lot to be proud of in this area: in the 20 years since the Blair government introduced the right to free nursery education for all three and four year olds, much has changed: mothers are entitled to more time off and families have benefited from tax credits. Sure Start children’s centres brought many services together too.
However, we still see a big gap in the school readiness of less well-off children and their more advantaged classmates by the time they start school—one that has finally started to narrow but which remains far too wide. This gap continues to widen throughout the school years, so it is essential that we close it early so children can begin their formal education on a level playing field. Too many toddlers in disadvantaged households lack the support they need to kickstart their development.
We know that the best way to close the school readiness gap is by giving disadvantaged toddlers access to high-quality nursery provision, with well-trained and skilled staff. Our Sound Foundations report identified four key dimensions of good quality early years education for all children under three: stable relationships and interactions with sensitive and responsive adults; a focus on play-based activities and routines which allow children to take the lead in their own learning; support for communication and language; and opportunities to move and be physically active. Crucially, it stressed the importance of knowledgeable and capable practitioners, supported by strong leaders.
Last month saw the roll-out of the new entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for working parents across the country. While extended access to childcare may do a lot to help the labour market and working parents, and certainly represents a major increase in the state’s commitment to childcare support, it may make it harder to improve social mobility.