At the time of writing, the main parties have yet to publish their manifestos for the upcoming general election. It is almost inevitable, however, that each will have something to say about affordable childcare, because it affects such a large number of families, not least the ‘ordinary working families’ who were the subject of a Government consultation last month.
But early years and childcare policies need to do more than appeal to a populist vote. By age five, disadvantaged children are already, on average, 4.3 months behind their peers. That gap, at age five, accounts for 40 per cent of the gap by the age of 16. We have one chance to give a child the right foundations to enable them to flourish emotionally and academically later on, and so government policies need to override politics.
If I were advising whoever walks through the door of No 10 on 9 June, I would encourage them to prioritise the following four areas:
1. Government funding and subsidies should be reformed so they are progressive, providing greater support to the poorest families. Our research found that, once new subsidies are implemented, those on higher incomes are likely to benefit most.
2. There needs to be greater investment in raising the quality and status of early years staff so that there is greater parity with the school workforce. Given the size of the gap by age five, policy-makers need to give serious consideration to the balance of funding between the different phases of education.
3. We need to ensure that early years practice and policies are being effectively evaluated so that those which are proven to have a positive and lasting effect on children’s outcomes can be disseminated more widely. A good step towards this would be to establish a culture of research-based decision-making both for practitioners and for national policy-setting, building from the important work being carried out by organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation.
4. More support is needed for parents, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often do not have the social capital needed to nurture their child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development. The evidence is clear that the home learning environment plays a substantial role in child development.