According to the National Audit Office's recent report, early education is largely about boosting results at the end of Key Stage One. Alternatively, the recent Field and Allen Reports argue strongly for the social benefits of early education and childcare – reducing poverty, for example, and intervening early to prevent vulnerable children from creating serious social problems in the future.
By both measures, we are in danger of feeling seriously let down. After spending billions of pounds on the free entitlement for early education at three and four, children’s progress at seven has been flatlining for the last four years. Is that such a big surprise? Firstly, it's well-known that the EYFS does not link well to Key Stage One, an issue which the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum attempted to address, before it was ditched by Michael Gove. Secondly, billions of pounds were pumped in to fund the "free entitlement" without an adequate focus on quality. The state pays for children to attend private nurseries which are only graded "satisfactory" by Ofsted and which are highly unlikely to benefit the children's development. The EPPE Project showed clearly that quality in private nurseries is significantly lower overall than in the maintained sector. Of course there are good private nurseries - so why didn't the government limit state funding to just the best?
Unfortunately, few lessons have been learnt from the wasting of billions of pounds on the "free entitlement", which is now going to be extended to two-year olds living in disadvantage. Potentially, expanding nursery provision like this is a really good and progressive way forward. But ... only if there are some assurances about quality. And unfortunately, the national evaluation of the pilot phase to provide free places for two-year olds showed no benefit overall to the children. Going back to the themes of the Allen and Field reports - the EPPE Project also suggests that poor quality provision for children under three leads has a negative effect on children's social development and their behaviour.
Isn't it easy to see where this might go? It will become increasingly easy – in a time of austerity – for critics to argue that there is no evidence that spending money on the early years is making a significant difference.
Wouldn't it be better if we could travel a little more slowly and carefully, when it comes to designing and delivering projects in the early years. We should be reflecting on what it means to be two-years old and go to nursery. We should be stopping to watch and learn about how small children are, in Alison Gopnik’s words, the best learning machines in the universe. Instead, we are locking our gaze onto a target for the creation of places. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner wisely commented in 1978: “childwatching of a sympathetic kind can go a long way towards helping us to think about child care more in the spirit of gentle problem solving and less as an exercise in ideological projection.”
A version of this piece was first published as my final column for Nursery World. I'm going to be concentrating a lot more on completing my doctorate in education now...