Friday, 19 October 2018

Inequality - we aren't doing nearly enough in the early years

There isn't enough action around inequality in early childhood. Here are a few recent and worrying examples.

Good Level of Development

Firstly, let's look at how things are going for children at the end of their Reception Year in English primary schools. In recent years, there has been a strong trend towards more children achieving the measure called "A Good Level of Development".

I'm not going to discuss the ins and outs of this measure, or the accuracy and robustness of the EYFSP now - this post just focuses on the government's statistical report.

So that's a pretty strong upwards trend. The Department for Education states formally that the EYFSP is not intended to "hold schools to account". But, as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman has recently argued, measures such as this have increasingly dominated education - and Ofsted inspections. As she recently said, “for a long time, our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results when we consider the overall effectiveness of schools ... [Concentrating on results] has increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and indirectly on pupils to deliver perfect data above all else."

It seems like schools have put  a lot of effort into making sure that the children with the strongest early learning achieve the "Good Level of Development".

Outcomes for more vulnerable children

But rather less effort has been put into improving outcomes for more vulnerable children - the group called the "lowest 20%" in the official statistical analysis.

Outcomes have risen far more modestly for them.

There was a period when the gap between that group, and the rest of children, narrowed slightly. But now it is widening - albeit by only a small amount.

Their point score is creeping up - which not only means that the school system is failing to tackle inequality in the early years, but is also creating classes of children in Year One that will be incredibly hard to teach because of the significant gaps in development between the majority of children who have achieved a "Good Level of Development" and the small, but still significant, children in the lowest 20% group who are often so far behind.

Sure Start Children's Centres

Secondly, look at how England's Sure Start Children's Centre programme is being taken apart. Not many years ago, Children's Centres were a new frontier for the welfare state. A single place where families could access the health, early education and family support services, along with education for parents and support with employment.

Evaluating the impact of Children's Centres has, I would argue, been difficult because they had barely got going before they were heavily cut back. But here are a few headlines.

The impact of Children's Centres

Families who had used Children's Centres were followed up when their children were seven years old, and researchers found that they were:

  • Engaging in less harsh discipline;
  • Providing a more stimulating home learning environment;

Additionally for certain groups within the SSLP areas mothers reported:

  • Providing a less chaotic home environment for boys (not significant for girls);
  • Better life satisfaction (lone parent and workless households only).
Child poverty

In terms of impact of child poverty, 

  • Reach areas showed a bigger fall in child poverty levels than their corresponding local authorities and England as a whole from 2006- 2011 (3.3% points fall, compared with a 1.1% point fall across England). In the most deprived areas, child poverty levels fell by five percentage points over the same period.
To be fair, the excellent analysis from the House of Commons Library [PDF] also reports findings that are much less favourable, particularly the Audit Commission's finding that the programme "has not produced widespread improvements in health outcomes."

"On the edge of a cliff"

But now, as Nursery World reports, the Children's Centre programme is near the edge of the cliff.

The programme was once supported by politicians across the board - including David Cameron in the run up to the 2010 election. But, as Nursery World's excellent infographic shows, the rate of closures is significant. Centres are closing down all over the country.

Which leads me to say it again: we aren't doing nearly enough to tackle inequality.

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