There seems to be little strategic direction to Government policy on early years—the life chances strategy was never published, the Government’s social mobility action plan did not fully address the role played by the early years, and the Government’s flagship 30 hours childcare policy appears to be entrenching disadvantage.
This report addresses what we consider to be the two key areas affecting children’s life chances: quality early years education and a strong home learning environment.
Quality early years education
Early years education for children below the age of four has a positive impact on the life chances of disadvantaged children, yet disadvantaged children spend significantly less time in pre-school than children from more affluent backgrounds.
The quality of teaching in the early years is just as important to outcomes as it is in other stages of education. Quality is key to pre-schools that have the biggest impact on children’s life chances. Pre-schools should have low staffing ratios and well-trained professionals. The Government must remove barriers to progression for early years teachers in order to encourage the recruitment and retention of a skilled early years workforce. It should also ensure clear and viable entry routes to careers in childcare, including apprenticeships.
The DfE’s decision not to fulfil its commitment to conducting the early years workforce feasibility study is disappointing. We urge the Government to justify that decision and either reconsider or provide a suitable alternative. We call upon the Government to develop a workforce strategy for the early years at the earliest opportunity.
Maintained nursery schools are extremely successful at ensuring excellent outcomes for disadvantaged children. Maintained nursery schools cannot wait until the Spending Review. Funding decisions regarding staff and places for the next academic year are being made now, and the transitional funding already provided is running out. We recommend that the Government should set out plans for, and commit to, fully funding maintained nursery schools by the end of the financial year.
We were told that the Government’s 30 hours childcare policy is a “car crash”. It is entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap, by leading to financial pressure on nurseries, providing more advantaged children with more quality childcare, and putting stress on the availability of places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We recommend that the Government review its 30 hours childcare policy to address the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children. The Government should reduce the earnings cap for the 30 hours childcare and use the extra funding to provide early education for disadvantaged children.
Supporting a strong home learning environment
Parental support and the home learning environment have a major effect on children’s life chances. It is particularly important for children’s oracy and language development which, although not the only important skill to be developed, is vital for children’s life chances.
The Government should build upon the evidence in Greater Manchester where every child is assessed eight times between 0–5 years old, including for speech and language development, with interventions following as necessary. This model should be followed across the country.
The lack of evidence about interventions to support parents and families in creating a positive home learning environment is concerning. The Government should commission research on such interventions, so that they can be based on solid evidence and rigorous evaluation, to ensure that activity and funding is not being wasted on efforts that may not be effective.
We heard a huge amount about the positive effects of children’s centres on children’s life chances. The DfE should develop a wider, comprehensive strategy for provision of high quality and effective early years services. In doing so, the DfE should explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for provision of integrated services.
Published: 7 February 2019