The BBC is reporting today that the Sutton Trust urges delay in the expansion of free places for two-year olds. It's a familiar story - the plan to offer the places is a good one. But it is being implemented with too much haste.
Here's a quick rundown of what we know. In 2009, the DFE evaluated the pilot phase [PDF] and found that overall, there had been no benefit to the children involved. However, the evaluation did find small gains (in significant areas, like language development) where children attended an early years setting of good quality. The evaluation measured quality using the ITERS and ECERS scales.
Five years later, there isn't any further evaluation of the scheme in the public domain, even though the level of spending is shooting up. You might have thought that there would be a small pilot, evaluating quality using the ECERS and ITERS measures, and following the children for a couple of years into school before any more money was committed. But there hasn't been.
The DFE is saying that the settings "should" be graded good or better by Ofsted, if they are to admit the funded two-year olds. The Sutton Trust want that to be mandatory, and also says that practitioners should all have a minimum of a Level 3 qualification. That makes sense. But it is important to bear in mind that a 2012 report from the Daycare Trust and Oxford University [PDF] found that there were many discrepancies between different measures of quality, so a "good" from Ofsted is not necessarily a reliable guide to quality, especially in respect of children before the age of three. Furthermore, a "good" is just a snapshot of quality on that particular day. As a former local authority early years adviser, I've seen settings get a "good" grading even though they do not provide consistently good early education and care over time.
Similarly, the call for everyone to have a Level 3 qualification is essentially sound, but that qualification has regrettably been utterly undermined in recent years, and again one cannot be certain that a level 3 practitioner will be good. This is why the conclusions of the government-sponosred Nutbrown Review in 2012 are so important - and why it is so regrettable they have been largely ignored since.
The Sutton Trust are, in essence, correct - there is no substitute for a well-qualified early years practitioner, and there is no point placing already disadvantaged children in poor-quality nurseries. But complete reliance on Level Three qualifications and Ofsted gradings is misplaced.