In his speech to the sector today at the launch of the second Ofsted Early Years Annual Report, Ofsted’s chief inspector said that health visitors could encourage parents to take up the two-year-old offer because of the contact they already have with the poorest families.
Nearly half of all eligible twos (42 per cent) were not using a place at any type of early years setting, the report said.
Sir Michael warned that school nurseries had been ‘colonised by the middle classes’, but that better-off children did not get any particular advantage from being in school from the age of two and would do just as well in a private nursery, a childminder or at home.
Eighty-seven per cent of private, voluntary and independent nurseries were judged good or outstanding, and 84 per cent of childminders achieved these grades.
Sir Michael said he was ‘particularly pleased’ to see the rise in childminder grades, which he attributed to Ofsted now not registering childminders until they have been trained in the EYFS.
He also said that it was very likely that improvements in the quality of early years provision had contributed to the rise in Key Stage 1 and 2 results in recent years.
But while the quality of early years provision is at its highest since Ofsted started inspecting it 14 years ago, the gap between the disadvantaged children and their peers has not changed.
According to Ofsted there is still a 20 per cent percentage point gap between the poorest children achieving a good level of development at the age of five and their better-off peers, the same as in 2007.
Fewer than 5,000 schools are taking two-year-olds, with only nine per cent of twos on a funded place in schools. There are 40 local authorities with no disadvantaged two-year-olds in any maintained school.
Since the Government changed the rules to make it easier for schools to take twos without having to register separately, only 1,000 more twos are in schools.
‘It seems that school nurseries have been colonised by the middle classes,’ Sir Michael said. ‘And who can blame these parents? I’m sure they see the well-qualified staff and the appeal of an easy transition to reception and conclude that it’s a good option for their children.’
Sir Michael said that there were those in the PVI sector demonstrating that they could make a difference when focusing on the poorest children, but that it was still his view that 'schools are best placed to tackle disadvantage'.
Primary schools had narrowed the gap (in reading and other skills) between the age of five at the end of Reception and seven in the space of two years, he said.
'If primary schools have demonstrated they can do this, then how much greater would the impact be if children joined the school not at aged four, but aged two? No, it is not proven. But it is obvious that what has been done to date has not worked. It's time to try something different.'
And he said that while local authorities could play a part by ensuring that children’s centres had the right information, it was health visitors who could encourage families to take up the two-year-old offer.
Health visitor numbers have risen dramatically, he said, and from September they will be commissioned by local authorities.
There is also a mandatory check for every one-year-old that health visitors are expected to deliver.
‘Health visitors will be aiming to meet every low-income parent with a one-year-old. With the right focus they can make sure that every parent knows exactly what early education is for, why their child would benefit, and the simple steps they need to take to get their place.’
With local authorities taking responsibility for health visitors from September, he said it was an opportunity for local authorities to demonstrate leadership in early years.
‘The local authority must make sure that every health visitor is armed with the knowledge and information about where the best provision is. It is essential that any existing barriers between health and education professionals are removed.’
According to Sir Michael, primary schools were the best place for the poorest two-year-olds for the smooth transition from nursery to Reception, because children who were already struggling may find it harder to adjust.
Schools also had more access to specialists, for example to speech and language therapy, behaviour management and parenting support.
It was also easier for schools to track children’s development, he said, and well-qualified graduate teachers made a difference too.
Finally, referring to another Ofsted report also published today, (Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?), he said that Ofsted had found that two-year-olds playing alongside three-year-olds longer during the day helped children to develop.
But PACEY disagreed with Sir Michael that the best place for twos was in schools.
Penny Tassoni, president of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said, ‘It is fantastic to see Ofsted applauding the hard work and dedication shown by childcare professionals across the sector, which has resulted in a steady rise in the number of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ settings. This is despite a decrease in local authority support for training and professional development, and an increase in demand for both.
But she added, ‘We don't agree that the best place for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families is in schools.
‘We believe that small adult to child ratios, offered in home-based and group settings, have the potential to offer the high quality care that children and families need.
‘Here, the close relationship between both carer and child, and carer and parent, can prove tremendously advantageous in breaking down the anxieties about putting younger children into childcare that some families from disadvantaged backgrounds can experience.
‘Rather than focusing on this school-led approach, a better way forward is to ensure that all settings are supported to deliver high-quality care and interactions, and have the funding and support to enable them to do this.’
Commenting on Sir Michael Wilshaw’s call for more to be done to ‘incentivise schools to take more disadvantaged two-year-olds’, the Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said, ‘It’s disappointing that, although the statistics show that the vast majority of PVI providers are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, Ofsted remains so focused on schools as providers of places for funded two-year-olds. Given that government research shows that very few schools currently offer funded places under the two-year-old free entitlement scheme, or plan to do so in the future, it would seem a far more sensible and logical approach to concentrate resources and investment on ensuring the sustainable delivery of such places through extensive network of experienced PVI providers.’
The National Day Nurseries Association also urged schools to work in partnership with nurseries.
Chief executive Purnima Tanuku, said, ‘Despite a chronic funding shortfall, nurseries already make a huge educational difference - particularly for underprivileged children as nurseries provide 92% of their funded places. Internationally-respected research has underlined that children who benefit from high-quality nurseries go on to do better in school and beyond.
‘Incentives need to be offered not just to schools, but to all early years providers to work together with their local authorities and central Government to unlock provision, giving families as great a choice of places as possible, and work towards narrowing the attainment gap. All types of providers have a lot to contribute to this goal. High-quality early learning and childcare can’t be done on the cheap and the government’s commitment to review funding is very welcome.
‘Let’s not forget how far we’ve come. Funded places for disadvantaged two-year-olds have been available only since 2013. This relatively new provision needs time to become established and awareness is still spreading.’
- Teaching and play in the early years - a balancing act? Read the report and watch four case study videos
- Read the exclusive blog from Nick Hudson, Ofsted's early education director