I am delighted to be contributing a series of monthly columns for Nursery World and in this first article I want to start with what is the big question for all of us: how can we enable the early years to flourish as a sector and become a stronger, more positive influence on a child's life chances?
It is the work of early years professionals that provides that crucial first line of defence against disadvantage, helping to level the playing field, so that where a child's from doesn't limit where they can go. We have been determined to broker profound change within the sector. Councils are now duty-bound to provide sufficient childcare places for local people. We have opened almost 3,000 Sure Start Children's Centres and provided the free entitlement for every three- and four-year-old, soon to be extended to two-year-olds in the poorest communities.
All of this positions the early years as a new, universal service - an integral part of the support we want for children and families in every local area.
Of course, the mantra of any universal service must be quality and consistency. That is precisely why the Early Years Foundation Stage is so important - by providing a common framework, a common set of expectations.
There have been some misunderstandings and some genuine misgivings about the EYFS and we have listened, we have responded and we will continue to do so. But the prominence being given to a small number of vocal critics belies the broad consensus of support and is in danger of undermining, not just the EYFS, but the reputation of the whole sector.
I would like us all to do our best to tackle some of the crude myths surrounding the EYFS. It is not a prescriptive curriculum, with testing and rote learning for toddlers. Staff will observe children and personalise activities to match their development and interests, because that is what good early years professionals do already, and it's what parents would expect them to do.
It will not require endless bureaucracy. The only written record that is required is the EYFS Profile completed at the end of the EYFS, and that is no change on what happens already.
It is not an attack on play-based learning. The EYFS makes it clear that play, enjoyment and fun make the essential recipe for a successful early years experience. As American educator Fred Rogers once said, 'Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.'
Children's cognitive and emotional development come through play, and the learning examples the EYFS contains, such as counting sultanas as a child helps to bake a cake, are the sort of things good parents and professionals up and down the country do every day.
The fact is that the EYFS will represent business as usual for the majority of settings, while giving guidance and structure to those who do need to improve their practices. And I'm really excited by what we can all achieve for children through the EYFS.
Beverley Hughes is the Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families. Further information is available from the Department for Children, Schools and Families at www.dcsf.gov.uk and at www.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/eyfs.