To the point: Today not tomorrow

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A children's author serving on an official commission on childcare noticed that many subcommittees were busily making recommendations around a central problem: 'It was generally agreed that the country was full of the wrong sort of people. There were strong opinions about what constituted a desirable citizenry and what should be done to children to procure one for the future.'

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This fictional account from an Ian McEwan novel was written 25 years ago - and what has changed? In the wake of last summer's riots, and considering the stubborn inequalities that leave many young people unprepared to contribute and to benefit from society, today's policymakers are putting their energies in the same direction.

But while I welcome the evidence which shows that high-quality early years education can support greater resilience, achievement, and future citizenship, I think we need to be wary of taking on the mantle of being the solution to all society's ills. The idea of 'what should be done to children' in the interests of society's tomorrow is worrying, as it risks tipping the scales away from what a child needs today.

An all-party parliamentary committee recently focused on early years education as the key to social mobility. Early years education, it said, will increase the number of disadvantaged children who go on to university. 'School readiness' is already a difficult and contentious idea - is it 'university readiness' now?

The fact is that there are many factors which leave some children and families at a disadvantage. Early years provision can and does make a difference to children's life chances. But it's not just about their future - it is their life today. We have to be careful that quick-fix solutions, payment by results, and short-term measurable outcomes don't mean that we distort what children really need in order to push them through an inappropriate 'readiness' door. What is good for their future is a strong, healthy and happy childhood. It's the adults' job to fix society, not the children's.

Nancy Stewart is an associate of Early Education

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