A damning report from the Education Select Committee accuses the Government of a confused approach to early years education and says that measures such as the 30 hours childcare commitment appear to be entrenching disadvantage.
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MPs had heard from those giving evidence that 30 hour childcare was ‘a car crash’, and called the Government for action in three key areas to help tackle the social injustices which currently exist in early years education and childcare. They are:
- The Government should reform 30 hours childcare, reducing the earnings cap and and targeting provision for disadvantaged children.
- Maintained nursery schools cannot wait until the spending review - the Government should set out plans before the end of the financial year to fully fund them.
- The DfE should resurrect their review of children’s centres and develop a comprehensive strategy to join up early years services and build on the success of children’s centres and other provision, such as family hubs.
Ofsted inspections of children’s centres should also be reinstated.
Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Committee, said, ‘Tackling social injustice is the central objective of the Education Committee. Despite the good intentions and efforts made by the Government, there remain significant social injustices in children’s life chances in England which early years childcare and education is failing to address.'
The report said, ‘We were told that the Government’s 30 hours childcare policy is a “car crash”. It is entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap, by leading to financial pressure on nurseries, providing more advantaged children with more quality childcare, and putting stress on the availability of places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.'We recommend that the Government review its 30 hours childcare policy to address the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children. The Government should reduce the earnings cap for the 30 hours childcare and use the extra funding to provide early education for disadvantaged children.’
The committee referenced research from the Education Policy Institute that shows that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged counterparts is already evident when children begin school at five, with a gap between them the equivalent of 4.3 months of learning. This gap more than doubles to 9.5 months at the end of primary school, and then more than doubles again to 19.3 months at the end of secondary school.
Mr Halfon added, ‘Supporting a child in the early years of their life is crucial to tackling social injustice and giving children the best possible chance to succeed. How well young people achieve at school has a massive impact on their life-chances. Sadly, we know that disadvantaged children start school behind their peers and that the gap widens, unless tackled, by the time they get to secondary school. But high-quality early years education, with well-trained professionals, can help to tackle this injustice and help these children climb the ladder of opportunity.’
‘A strong home learning environment can have a major impact on children’s life chances. The Government needs to come forward with a comprehensive strategy for early years services, including children’s centres and family hubs, to give disadvantaged children the best possible start in life.’
The report also highlights the Government’s failure to address issues around workforce and recruitment, stating, ‘The Government does not appear to have an early years workforce strategy, encompassing recruitment, quality and retention.’
It also criticises the Government for failing to go ahead with its commitment to carry out the early years workforce feasibility study, urging them to ‘recognise the difference that a highly skilled workforce makes to narrowing the quality gap between disadvantaged and more affluent areas. We further urge the Government to justify its failure to conduct the early years workforce feasibility study and to either reconsider its decision not to go ahead with the study or provide a suitable alternative.’
It says that barriers to progression for early years teachers must be removed in order to encourage the recruitment and retention of a skilled, high-quality early years workforce, recommending that early years teachers should be able to access Qualified Teacher Status via a specialist route.
'Wholesale review' needed
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance said, 'We know that the first five years of a child’s life are absolutely crucial in terms of their long-term development, and that any gaps that exist between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers in the early years will only widen if they aren’t tackled at the earliest possible opportunity.
‘But while the Government talks a good game when it comes to “closing the gap” and supporting the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds, the fact is that many of its flagship childcare policies do the exact opposite.
He added, ‘That families can earn up to £200,000 a year and still be eligible for the scheme at a time when government says money is scarce is nonsensical, and the committee is right to call for this upper threshold to be reviewed.
‘Add to this the fact that children’s centres appear to have been all but abandoned by ministers, and it’s clear that the Committee is completely justified in saying that the government’s approach to the early years is “entrenching disadvantage”.
‘If the Government is truly committed to tackling disadvantage in the early years, it needs to reflect on the findings of this report, take a wholesale review of its current approach to childcare policy, and ensure that it is delivering practical support to children, families and providers, and not just empty rhetoric.’
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, 'While we agree with many of the committee’s findings, we are very disappointed that this report focuses mostly on childcare provision in the maintained sector. There are over a million children getting their early education and childcare in private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries making up 66% of places in England.
'These nurseries, 95 per cent of which have been judged as good or outstanding, are at the forefront of delivery high quality early education and improving the lives of millions of children while giving the flexibility that working families need.
'The report is right to highlight that the underfunding of the Government’s childcare policy is at odds with its stated aim of closing the attainment gap. The result is that the system is entrenching these disadvantages rather than improving life chances of all children, something we have been warning the Government of for years. Funding should be increased across all types of provider, not just the maintained sector.'
Liz Bayram, chief executive at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, 'Since we submitted written and oral evidence to this inquiry over six months ago, things have only got worse. The gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is widening. Take-up of the two year offer for disadvantaged two year olds has stagnated. We have a growing concern that the downward trend in the qualifications and training of the early years workforce is going to impact on quality of care.'
Sara Bonetti, associate director for early years at the Education Policy Institute, welcomed the report’s conclusions.
‘While the Government has recognised the importance of early education in tackling disadvantage, certain policies appear to be impinging on efforts to improve social mobility,’ she said.
'This includes the 30 hours childcare entitlement for working parents, which we find works against disadvantaged families, and may be impacting on the quality of provision by creating a strain on childcare providers.
‘If it wishes to make further progress on social mobility, the government should consider redesigning this policy, to ensure that children are not deprived of access to vital early years education.'
Save the Children director of UK Poverty policy, advocacy and campaigns, Steven McIntosh, said, ‘This report sends a clear message to Government that action is needed to piece together the jigsaw of early years support to stop children falling behind before they’ve even started school. As MPs have highlighted, early learning is the foundation of children’s life chances.
'But last year, two in five children in poverty didn’t reach a good level of development at age five, compared to a quarter of other children. Without support, many never catch up.
‘To close this gap, the Government must ensure that more disadvantaged children are able to access quality childcare, alongside supporting parents to support their children’s learning at home. Until we focus support on the children who are held back by poverty, the Government’s ambition to halve the early language gap between poor children and their better of peers won’t be realised. A failure to act risks leaving a generation of children behind.’
Responding to the committee's report, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said, ‘While the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers at age five has reduced since 2013, we know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with additional needs can face the greatest barriers in their early development.That is why we are focused on improving children’s early literacy and communication, and why the education secretary has committed to halving the proportion who leave Reception year without these key skills.
‘More broadly, we are investing more than £100 million in projects looking to improve disadvantaged children’s early outcomes, and are building a coalition of organisations – from businesses to voluntary organisations – that will help support parents with their child’s early language development.'
The DfE said that owing to uncertainty over the exact date of the spending review, it was considering how best to handle transitional arrangements for a number of areas including maintained nursery schools.
- Read the Education Committee's report Tackling disadvantage in the early years here