Leading figures in child development and neuroscience are backing the charity’s call for the Government to do more to to invest in good-quality childcare.
A new scientific briefing from Save the Children and the Institute of Child Health at University College, London, Lighting Up Young Brains, says that toddlers’ brains form connections at double the rate of adults, and that the pre-school years are a critical time for the brain to develop key skills such as speech and language.
Research carried out for the charity highlights how it is not just a child’s genes that determine their brain and language development during pre-school years, and that parents, carers and childcare workers play a crucial role.
Professor Torsten Baldeweg, professor of neuroscience and child health, from University College London’s Institute of Child health, said, 'Why is it important to stimulate children before they go to school? It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed.
'We need input to maintain them for the rest of our lives. And we know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development. That’s perhaps one of the most important lessons we’ve learned from these studies - that these early years are absolutely critical. Much more must be done to boost children’s early learning.'
Last year 130,000 children – equivalent to six children in every Reception class - did not reach the expected level for language development, according to EYFS Profile statistics.
Gareth Jenkins, director of UK Poverty for Save the Children, said, ‘Toddler’s brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life. We’ve got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school, as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.
‘To tackle the nation’s education gap, we need a new national focus on early learning to give children the best start – not just increasing free childcare hours, but boosting nursery quality to help support children and parents with early learning.’
A separate poll of 1,000 parents found that most do not realise the vital role of children's pre-school years, with six in ten saying that school was the most important time for learning.
Parents also underestimated their children's abilities in the early years. Just under half of parents surveyed said they expected their child to know 100 words by their third birthday - half as many as the Government recommends.
Moreover, research shows that on average a child's vocabulary expands from 55 words at 16 months, to 225 words at 23 months, to 573 words at 30 months.
Highly skilled, but low paid
Meanwhile, Deborah Lawson, general secretary of education and childcare union Voice, pointed out that there was also a crisis on graduate recruitment in the sector.
‘We know that children benefit from early years education in settings that employ professionals with a range of skills and qualifications. We support the raising of standards of education and training.
‘However, early years settings are actually facing a shortage of early years teachers as some university courses offering training for Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) are facing closure because of low numbers.
‘EYTS trainees need the same degree and GCSE qualifications as those working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) but EYTS does not guarantee the same terms and conditions as QTS. There is no set pay scale and some providers only pay wages for 35 weeks a year, rather than an annual salary.
‘The early years sector is expected to operate on minimum funding and maximum good will. Good will doesn’t pay the mortgage.’
She added that a survey by Voice found that the respondents working in childcare were generally highly-skilled but low paid.
‘Childcare’s greatest challenge is recruiting and retaining staff. Raising the “status” of early years professionals, as the Government claims it is doing, must go hand-in-hand with appropriate investment and coherent pay and career structures to reflect and reward appropriately the professionals who work in childcare.’
Early years sector organisations said that many settings could not afford to employ teachers, because of under-funding.
Stella Ziolkowski, director of quality and workforce development at the National Day Nurseries Association, said, ‘All staff who work with children in nurseries play a part in their early education, for example in literacy and maths, through activities such as reading and storytelling or weighing, measuring and counting.
‘NDNA believes that all nurseries should aspire to employ teachers but some simply cannot afford to, given the chronic underfunding of the Government’s free places for three and four year olds. We are now campaigning for funding levels to be raised before the Government doubles its free entitlement to 30 free hours for three and four-year-olds with working parents from next year.
‘A well-qualified workforce is vital to ensure that standards continue to rise in the nursery sector.’
NDNA’s Workforce Survey 2015 revealed that a total of 88 per cent of NDNA member settings employed graduate Early Years Teacher or Early Years Professional staff, and that a typical nursery might have one or two, or even four or five teachers, depending on its size.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school learning Alliance, said, ‘Research has shown that a graduate-led workforce can have a significant positive impact on children’s early learning outcomes, and so we welcome any initiatives that support the sector to attract more graduate practitioners.
‘However, without the funding needed to enable providers to pay graduate-level wages, this ambition, while admirable, will be impossible to achieve in practice. What’s more, it’s important to remember that being a good early years practitioner is about more than just having certain academic qualifications – experience, a caring disposition and crucially, an in-depth understanding of child development are all vital and these valuable attributes should not be overlooked.’
Number of graduates rising
The Department for Education said that the number of graduates in the early years workforce was continuing to rise, and between 2008 and 2013 the proportion of full day care staff with a degree or higher increased from 5 per cent to 13 per cent.
Education and childcare minister Sam Gyimah, said, 'This Government is raising the bar and making a significant investment in the early years sector, working closely with the profession to help improve its status – and as a result salaries have increased, numbers of qualified staff have risen, the number of graduates in the workforce continues to rise, and a record number of providers are rated Good or Outstanding.
'We know that 80 per cent of children are achieving the expected communication and language skills by age five – an increase of 8 percentage points since 2013. But we are determined to go further.
'That’s why we provide funding for course fees and bursaries for eligible trainees, and are also supporting employers to help with their staff training costs. We are continuing to look at what more can be done to encourage talented staff to forge a career in the early years and this will be a key strand of our Workforce Strategy which will be published in 2016.'