Social mobility plan promises £50m for school nursery places

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A new Government plan to boost social mobility has pledged £50m to increase school-based nursery places and close the 'word gap'.

The social mobility action plan, entitled ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’ was launched today (14 December 2017) by education secretary Justine Greening, with the aim of putting social mobility ‘at the heart’ of education policy.

The plan will target £800m of existing Government investment towards raising the attainment of disadvantaged children across the country, in a move the Government says could boost the British economy by over £20 billion.

It was released in the wake of the resignation of all four members of the Government’s social mobility commission on 3 December.

Alan Milburn, the former Labour minister who had chaired the commission since 2012, said in his resignation letter, seen by the Observer, that he had ‘little hope’ the Government could make the necessary progress to create a fairer Britain.

Unveiling the plan at the inaugural Reform social mobility conference today, Ms Greening pledged £50m to boost school nursery provision in some of the most challenging areas, in a bid to help more children benefit from early education support before they arrive at primary school.

This investment will be targeted in areas of weak early language and literacy to help close the ‘word gap’ between disadvantaged children and their more well-off peers, the education secretary said.

As part of the plan, a further £20m will be invested in the development of early years practitioners in pre-Reception settings, in particular those working in challenging schools and areas.

The Government will work with teachers and early years experts to revise the early learning goals in order to ensure EYFS outcomes align better with the starting point of year one teaching, with a particular focus on literacy and numeracy, as flagged up in the response to the Primary Assessment consultation.

Expert groups will also be established to identify examples of best practice in the Reception year and develop guidance on what strong Reception year practice looks like. Last month, Ofsted released its report into Reception class practice, 'Bold Beginnings', to a critical response from some early years experts.

A new £23m investment in a ‘future talent fund’ was also announced as part of the action plan. The fund will allow trials of new teaching approaches to support the education of the most able children in less well-off communities.

Ms Greening launched the plan by highlighting recent statistics suggesting educational standards are rising, including 1.9m more children now in good and outstanding schools than in 2010, record numbers of young people in education or training and more disadvantaged pupils going to university, as well as a recent study showing England is rising in the international literacy league table.

However, she added that more must be done to deliver equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of where they live. 

Ms Greening said, ‘In modern Britain, where you are born, where you live, where you go to school and where you work directly affects where you get to in life.

‘Talent is spread evenly across this country; the problem is that opportunity isn’t. We need systemic change and we need everyone – Government, employers, education professionals and civil society - to work together – so that social mobility runs through everything we all do.’

The overarching ambition of the social mobility action plan is to focus on places and communities across the country that the plan says feel they have been ‘left behind’ because they have not yet seen the improvement that other parts of the country have already benefited from.

A further four ambitions cover educational ‘life stages’, from the early years to starting work.

  1. Closing the word gap: boosting access to high quality early language and literacy both in the classroom and at home
  2. Closing the attainment gap: raising standards for every pupil and supporting teachers early in their career as well as getting more good teachers in areas where significant challenges remain
  3. Real choice at post-16: creating world-class technical education, backed by £500m in investment, and increasing options for all young people regardless of their background
  4. Rewarding careers for all: boosting skills and confidence to make the leap from education into work and building a new type of partnership with businesses to improve advice and information for young people.

Sector reactions

Responding to the plan, Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at the Education Policy Institute, said, ‘We're pleased that the government has recognised that more needs to be done to improve social mobility in England. As our research shows, 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16 is already present by age five, and so the government is right to make early years a key plank of their social mobility plan.

‘Building the evidence base of what works both in the home and in early years settings is crucial. The Education Policy Institute will be working closely with the government and partners to help build this evidence base.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, 'What is the basis for giving this £50 million investment only to schools? Private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries care for 77 per cent of pre-school children in England and excellent work goes on there, developing children’s literacy and numeracy skills through play and offering flexibility for working parents. Many have graduate teachers. But they are being overlooked, while schools are encouraged to create additional provision.

'In duplicating provision and not supporting the PVI sector adequately, the government is threatening the sustainability of those businesses which are already struggling to deliver its current childcare offer to parents on stand-still rates. It would be much better to invest this money in the existing infrastructure across all sectors. PVI nurseries – of which 96 per cent are judged good or outstanding – already work with disadvantaged children, including those receiving the two-year-old offer.

'This sends out an unpleasant and unsupportive message to the PVI nursery sector.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘Research has shown that investment into the early years is the most effective way to improve children's long-term life chances, and yet, for years now, the sector has been chronically underfunded. As a result, we've seen quality early years providers across the country being forced out of business, while many children's centres have been reduced to offering little more than a skeleton service, if they haven't closed down all together.

‘A commitment to improving access to early language and literacy is of course welcome, but quality early years provision is so much more than this - and until the Government is willing to fund the whole sector adequately, it's hard to see plans to improve social mobility being anything more than an aspiration.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'There is much to welcome here.  We know that children's early language skills are a key foundational skill, alongside others like self-regulation.  It will be vital that the focus on language is one that runs through a broad and varied early years curriculum, and is not seen as a stand alone - language comes from rich and meaningful experiences, including the specific areas of Expressive Arts & Design and Understanding of the World, and must also be linked to children's thinking and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

'Justine Greening wisely recognises that there is no "silver bullet", but this wide ranging plan shows the importance of multiple partners including health visitors, early years practitioners and teachers, local authorities and children's centres.  We regret that only a very small part of the funding here is directly targeted on initiatives to improve the home learning environment, which has to be the starting point for action - early education cannot alone be a panacea. 

'While we recognise that data drives behaviour, we are cautious about proposals for an "enhanced focus on vocabulary development" in the Early Learning Goals. Additional funding for developing the knowledge and skills of early years practitioners is welcome, as is the recognition of the key role of teachers in leading high quality provision - although we are disappointed that the focus is only on schools, and not on increasing graduate led provision in PVIs.

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