Wednesday, 27 May 2015

On the doorstep of number 10: a little-noticed commitment to nursery education

David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, 8th May 2015
Throughout an election campaign which already feels a lifetime away, the main parties all pledged their support for more "childcare". As Professor Tony Bertram, President of Early Education, argued at the time, there were many "promises to increase the number of hours of childcare for working families, and much less discussion about the quality of early education, especially for the most disadvantaged children."

So it's interesting to note that what Cameron actually said outside 10 Downing Street after he visited Buckingham Palace following the Conservatives' election victory: "we must ensure that we bring our country together. As I said in the small hours of this morning, we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ... [amongst a long list of measures] that for children who don't get the best start in life, there must be the nursery education and good schooling that can transform their life chances."

Childcare is sometimes, and I think wrongly, understood as a service for families with working parents. That neglects the honourable tradition of care being organised as a public good. 

But in arguing for nursery education, Cameron is arguing for provision which benefits children's learning and overall development, rather than focussing more narrowly on childcare. Implicitly, he is arguing that we need a more highly-qualified and skilled workforce than we currently have.

When it comes to "transforming life chances", we know that in general the quality of nursery provision in England is not good enough to do this. For example, government-funded research found that "for children who attended the early years education pilot when they were aged two, there is no evidence that overall they had better outcomes at age five, as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage profile, than children who did not attend the pilot."

However, the same report noted that "the exception is for children in the pilot study who received early years education in high quality settings. They performed somewhat better at age five than those children who attended low or adequate quality settings as part of the pilot."

Unfortunately, the proportion of higher quality settings was so low that there was no statistically significant benefit to the cohort of children as a whole.

So, what might that vision of "transforming life chances" actually mean in practice? Surely, it means a significant investment in quality, to improve nursery provision.

Early Education note that, according to the Department of Education's figures for 2013, only 59% of private nurseries have at least one member of staff qualified to degree-level, compared to 87% of daycare provision in children’s centres, 100% of maintained nursery schools and over 98% of nursery and reception classes in primary school.

So, I would argue, one priority is to maintain the highest quality provision, which we know has the best outcomes for disadvantaged young children (as evidenced by the EPPE Project). That means ensuring that maintained nursery schools remain an integral part of the system, firstly because of their transformative impact on children and families, and secondly because of the wider benefit they can offer in supporting other providers and working together to improve quality.

It should also be a priority to direct additional funding into the early years system as a whole, going directly to providers, to increase the proportion of graduate-level practitioners. 

As Nobel laureate James Heckman argues, investing in high quality early years programmes for young children from birth is one of the wisest economic moves a country can make. 

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