Voters in this year's local elections who care about high-quality early years provision are faced with a simple choice. Do we spend the weeks between now and May explaining the importance of the early years and defending provision that has taken decades to develop? Or do we stand back and watch while it is systematically cut back and closed down?
#earlyyearspledge is Early Education's campaign focused on the local government elections later this year in May. We are urging candidates for local election, and all councillors who are not up for re-election, to support our five-point pledge:
1. Protect children's centres, with services for all families and extra support for those in greatest need.
2. Protect maintained nursery schools.
3. Keep specialist local authority early years teams and a role for the local authority in ensuring quality.
4. Protect specialist services for young children with disabilities and special educational needs, together with support for their families.
5. Promote the best interests of summer-born children.
We understand that these are difficult times for local government, when the available resources are being so significantly reduced. All the same, early years provision is managed and paid for locally for the benefit of communities. Take the example of children's centres: it is local politicians who have presided over the reduction in numbers from 3,613 to 3,116 (figures from Parliament's Education Committee).
We know many local authorities have opted to maintain their whole network of children's centres, like Barnsley, Newham, Reading and Lincolnshire, to name a few. But while Hertfordshire has kept all 82 of its centres open, councillors in Peterborough have just voted to close down eight of the city's 15 children's centres. Local decisions matter.
Early Education is also very concerned about the future of maintained nursery schools. Parliament's Education Committee recently stated its concern that 'many maintained nursery schools have closed in the past decade'. We calculate that 92 have either closed or been merged into primary schools in England since 1999, with the total number dropping from 520 to 428. The number has more than halved in Wales, from 42 to 19, and there are serious threats to funding in Scotland. This is despite the evidence from the EPPE Project that nursery schools provide the best outcomes for disadvantaged children.
That advantage continues to benefit the children for the next decade of their schooling, especially those children with a poorer home learning environment. Likewise, Ofsted rates nursery schools as the most effective part of the maintained school system, with 55 per cent rated outstanding (compared to 17 per cent of primary schools).
Early Education is due to release the full findings of its recent member survey to coincide with the emergency Nursery School Summit on 14 March, but we can already reveal that only 12 per cent of nursery school head teachers currently feel confident about their school's future.
One typical response in the survey talks of how 'Nursery schools have developed their provision over the past 15 years through the Early Excellence Centre initiative, Sure Start, Neighbourhood Nursery, Children's Centre, and now Teaching Schools. Yet sustainability is still an issue due to the expense of running a nursery school compared to a nursery class in a primary school.'
ALL AREAS OF PROVISION AFFECTED
In fact, problems extend to all areas of early years provision. Our members are telling us that local authority advisory teams have been cut back significantly in many areas, reducing the support that they can offer early years settings and childminders. The number of local authority-provided courses and training opportunities reduces every year.
We know that early years practitioners, including childminders, have always shown a remarkable commitment to training, often in the evening or at weekends. Without good-quality professional development opportunities, and without regular on-site support from local advisory teams, it will become ever harder to improve. Inspection by Ofsted cannot, on its own, improve early years practice; as a 2010 report from the University of Oxford and the Daycare Trust found, local authorities have a key role to play.
This becomes even more critical with respect to the specialist support local authorities offer to early years practitioners and childminders working for the inclusion of young children with special needs and disabilities. Cutbacks here are yet another false economy: much greater costs will be incurred if children move on to statutory schooling without having received adequate early support.
A 2010 report from the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that 'support for early years settings to enable them to meet the needs of disabled children and those with special educational needs may be insufficient' and, even more worrying, that 'funding for early years settings, particularly for support and advice, falls short of that available in schools'.
With new arrangements for supporting children with special needs due to come into force later in the year, we are still faced with a depressingly familiar problem: early years settings in some areas are expected to include children with complex special needs, without the necessary resources or support. This is not true inclusion, and we cannot sustain this cut-price 'Cinderella service'.
The fifth issue that is concerning our members is the unfair treatment of summer-born children. This is another area where local politicians can really make a difference, for good or for ill. The legal position is clear: parents are entitled to defer school admission up to their child's fifth birthday. Yet in some parts of the country, parents find themselves under pressure from local authorities and from schools to enrol their summer-born children (who have only just turned four) into Reception classes. These classes are not always able to meet the needs of such young children.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, recently commented that 'although flexibility is there for parents, it is difficult for parents to access. To further compound this, many schools and local authorities convey mixed messages to parents.'
The negative effects of inflexible local arrangements could be huge: for example, research undertaken in 2013 by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that summer-born children as a whole achieve poorer GCSE grades and are less likely to go to university relative to children born in September. They are also more likely to be labelled as having a mild special educational need, have lower self-confidence and are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when young.
MAKE THE CASE TO COUNCILLORS
In summary, our argument is that local politicians play a crucial role in making and delivering early years policy. In some local areas, well-informed councillors have protected early years provision, maintained core central services, and understood the needs of summer-born children. They have sound long-term decisions, acting on evidence like the research finding from Action for Children that for every £1 invested in an effective children's centre, £4.60 is generated in social value.
Our first high-profile supporter, John Biggs (Labour's candidate for directly-elected mayor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets) has publicly backed our campaign, saying that 'this is an area we're very committed to in the Labour party, both nationally and locally, and is particularly important for a borough like Tower Hamlets with such high levels of child poverty.
'We are reassured that your campaign takes a pragmatic approach to the spending pressures local authorities face, but seeks commitment to prioritising the delivery of early years services in line with your principles. I'm proud to sign the pledge and commit to ensuring universal, good-quality early years provision is protected for all our families, if elected in May.'
So, Early Education strongly urges you to support and promote our #earlyyearspledge campaign. Spend the next few months getting in touch with your local councillors, and candidates for local elections. Explain why early years provision is so important and why the decisions they are responsible for matter so much. Invite them to see your work and meet parents of young children.
We understand that when overall resources are reduced, difficult decisions have to be made, including making savings in the funding of early years provision. But these savings should be proportionate and implemented in a way that does not undermine the provision which many families with young children rely on.
HOW TO KEEP UP WITH OUR CAMPAIGN
You can keep up with our campaign at www.eypledge.wordpress.com where you can find out about local action, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @eypledge. We will be announcing regular online campaign themes, to celebrate what is best about the early years provision in your area and campaign to protect it.
Perhaps most useful of all, you can download our electronic campaign pack with plenty of advice, examples of emails and letters to send and a simple, six-point guide on how to set up a meeting with candidates for election in your local areas.
Please support us now. The sad truth is that we are losing much of our best early years provision. You may know why high-quality early years provision is important, but that won't make any difference unless you can persuade local politicians and local electors to agree with you. Otherwise we will all pay in the long term for cuts made in the short term.