The tail is the numbers game about meeting targets for how many two-year-olds are in funded places, in line with Government policy. We risk losing sight of what should be the leading purpose – providing a better start for the children and families at risk of missing out in society.
Moving two-year-olds into early education has huge amounts of money attached. Half a billion pounds this year flows into the provision of places, following £100m of capital money to develop capacity. The aim is to enrol 20 per cent of this age group now and 40 per cent next year. Meanwhile, children’s centres shut services due to strapped finances and training opportunities dry up for practitioners whose local authority cannot support them.
There is evidence that the highest quality settings can benefit vulnerable two-year-olds, so current policy calls for these young children to be placed in high-quality settings as far as possible. But not enough such places exist, so now the push is to move two-year-olds into schools – wholly inappropriate provision for children at this stage of development.
The tally approach leads to pressure to get all eligible children into settings, even when it is not in the best interests of individual children. For instance, a looked-after child may need time to feel secure at home with foster parents, but against the advice of social workers this eligible child can be placed in a setting for 15 hours per week.
And what will happen in the families, who are by far the most important and lasting influence on their children’s future? Parents may emerge from this policy with the message that they are not good enough, and that their children are better off somewhere else. One study found that parents sometimes disengage from supporting learning at home when their children go into settings, thinking they have handed over that job to the ‘experts’.
How much more damaging will this effect be when settings employ the appalling practice of segregating the ‘funded’ children in separate rooms? This labels particular children and families as lacking, instead of developing the sense of community and competence that can take them forward.