Giving all children a head-start to their educational experience

19 Apr

I           Catch them young and grow them well

Eons ago, Aristotle said: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the main.”  Several centuries later, the Jesuits adopted as their maxim: “Give me a child for his first seven years and I will give you the man.” So why is it that the nation continues to spend so much more on pupils on the cusp of leaving school than those who are starting out on their education? Would it not be a much better investment, in the words of the title to a compelling piece written by Helen Ward for The Times Educational Supplement on 24 March 2017 if we “flip the system”?

In 2012, the Sutton Trust found – as reported in its Social Mobility Report – a 19-month gap in school readiness between the richest and the poorest four- and five-year-olds in the UK.  IN 2016, 54% of children entitled to free school meals were at a good level of development by the end of the Reception year.  It was 72% for the rest.  The Sutton Trust suggested unequivocally that we can do much to close the gap with high-quality early years education.

According to Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), “There is emerging evidence that, particularly for disadvantaged children, people giving them a chance to get a flying start in early learning is one of the best ways to close the gap.”

A Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) statement declared that a good quality pre-school experience for a child has a positive impact on her/his results at the age of 15.  The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) tracked 3,000 children as they entered school to find that at seven those who had attended pre-school did better than those that hadn’t.  This was most pronounced for the poorest pupils.  The report said: “While not eliminating disadvantage, good quality pre-school provision can be seen as an effective means of achieving targets concerning social exclusion and breaking cycles of disadvantage.”

In Michigan, USA, the Perry Pre-school Study, which took off in 1962, found that disadvantaged young people who had attended an educational programme were less likely to show delinquent behaviour by the age of 15 than their peers. In another Chicago study, the Child-Parent Centre followed 1,400 children through to the age of 28 to discover that attending pre-school was linked to higher educational attainment and income and lower rates of imprisonment or drug-use.

II          Funding and staff salaries

Despite all parties vying with one another to provide child care, early years’ education, per se, continues to lag behind other priorities such as the GCSE reforms.  The Pupil Premium Grant (PPG) for an early years’ child, for instance, is only £300 annually while that for a primary pupil is £1,320. Why?

The government move to expand free early education from 15 to 30 hours a week for three- and four-year olds for working parents is laudable but not carefully thought through because the funding is insufficient. The National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that providers should be given the choice of offering more hours to three- and four-year-olds rather than care and educate two-year-olds as the latter require more staff per child and the funding provided is insufficient.

Also, staff working in the early years are poorly paid.  In 2012, Professor Cathy Nutbrown referred to “a lack of understanding” of the role of early years’ staff.  “Some appear to think that working with young children means nothing more than changing their nappies and wiping noses. This is a misconception of what it is to work with young children and an insult to young children.” she stated in her report, Foundations for Quality.

The drive to improve the qualification of staff in the early years is welcome.  However, a 2015 report, Provision and use of pre-school child-care in Britain, by the University of London Institute of Education revealed that the average wage for a childcare worker was £6.60 an hour or £10,325 a year in 2012-14 while the average wage for a full-time teacher was £37,800.

Unquestionably, provision for the early years has improved over the last decade or so, albeit, the coalition government abandoned Sure Start, a programme established by the previous Labour Party when in power (from 1997-2010) – which brought education and childcare together.  Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former HMCI, in his last annual report, stated that the proportion of good and outstanding nurseries, pre-schools and child minders had risen for six years in a row and was at 91%. That the report stated that the proportion of good and outstanding nurseries in the last deprived areas as almost the same as that in the most deprived ones was indeed heartening.

III        Proposals for improving provision

So, what measures can our government take to improve early years’ provision?

(1)        First, while the focus has been on improving access for two- and three-year-olds to care and education, there has been much less on improving quality.  The EPPE report mentioned that children made more progress in pre-school centres where staff had higher qualifications.  “Having trained teache4rs working with children in pre-school settings for a substantial proportion of time and most importantly as curricular leaders had the greatest impact on quality, and was linked specifically with better outcomes in pre-reading and social development at age 5.”

And now, the National Schools’ Commissioner, Sir David Carter, has said that the early years should be a “pre-requisite” part of every teacher’s training, regardless of the phase of education in which s/he works.

Sir David recounted (at a recent conference) the time he was at the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol celebrating the summer of successful A level results. The Key Stage 5 teachers were requested to stand up and applauded for their efforts but he believed that another group at the opposite end of the age spectrum deserved their day of glory too.

“I asked every Reception teacher to stand up because they needed a round of applause, too, because the fact they taught those children so well 12 years earlier underpinned what then happened in Years 12 and 13,” said Sir David.

Sir David has called for providers of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) to educate all their students in the early years. But there are intractable problems, not least fitting a gallon of course requirements into the pint-pot of time that is available.

(2)        The second problem – pretty gargantuan – is measuring value for money. Children’s attainment at the ages of 4 or 5 is measured in accordance with the Early Years Foundation Profile (EYFP), which assesses their development in 17 areas – among which are Reading, Mathematics and Social Skills. This is done towards the end of the Reception year – i.e. the final year of the Foundation Stage.  However, there is no routine link between the early years’ settings which the children have attended and the type of provision making the impact. There is also a lack of data on the impact of free child-care.

(3)        Thirdly, the early years’ sector is made up of a smorgasbord of maintained and private nurseries, voluntary and independent pre-school settings in addition to child-minders.

(4)        The fourth problem, a perennial one, is a shortage of finance. Education, overall, is going through a period of painful cuts (albeit the government keeps maintaining that the funding is being protected in cash terms). No one wants to steal from Peter to pay Paul.  Diverting funding from the primary and secondary sectors to the early years will also speed up the exodus of teachers.

Helen Ward suggested that the money given to universities to improve access among low-income students and under-represented groups could be diverted to the early years.  IN 2014/15, this amounted to £725 million.  However, the reaction of academics is likely to be cacophonous. Sir David Greenaway, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, accepted that there was a compelling case for better investment in the early years’ education, “but it would be odd to fund that by reducing the expenditure that universities are making (to improve access) because it will take several years to deliver and we need to be doing things for those students who are coming through from low-income backgrounds now.”

That apart, education must be properly resourced all the way through as all sectors deserve their fair shares.  Paul Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuro-Science and Education at the University of Bristol, points out that we cannot simply intervene at age 3 and be confident that the child will stay on track and do well at 18.  “Development is not continuous,” he said, “and there is not a single mental ability which develops in the same way during childhood. Some parts, like reasoning, keep developing until the age of 19.”

IV        Last words from the Department of Education (DfE)

I don’t want the reader to think that this article is meant to serve as a vituperative criticism against the government, so will conclude by leaving you to contemplate the views of the Department for Education, who has made the following statement, quoted in the TES article of Helen Ward.

“Helping working families with the cost of child-care is at the heart of this government’s agenda – that’s why we are investing a record £6 billion per year by 2020.

“The government has a package of support for parents, which includes doubling our child-care offering for three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week, saving families around £5,000 per year. The new early years funding formula will see the vast majority of providers receive increased funding rates, and we are also giving tools and support to help them run their businesses more efficiently.

“Last week, we launched a new Early Years Workforce Strategy to raise the profile of early education, putting quality at the heart of every setting and helping employers to attract, retain and develop their staff.”


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