Dawning realisation

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Our columnist reflects on what party conference season means for the early years

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Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at the EPI

The party conference season has drawn to a close and I’ve returned from having participated in several discussions with politicians, policy-makers and commentators. I was deeply heartened by the widespread consensus on the importance of the early years. If the early years is going to attract serious policy attention and investment, it needs first to be recognised by the key decision-makers in both Government and the Opposition – and that recognition is starting to emerge.

Angela Rayner is proving to be formidable in her role as shadow education secretary and there is emerging respect among education and political commentators for both her passion and grasp of the key challenges facing young people. And Justine Greening is demonstrating an analytical, thoughtful approach to her brief – neither rushing into big policy decisions, nor backing away from the big challenges.

Both Rayner and Greening spoke of the early years gap in their conference speeches. Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ would provide an additional £500m per year to rejuvenate the Sure Start programme, while the Conservatives have committed to investing £140m to improve literacy and numeracy in Reception, as well as another nod to ‘Opportunity Areas’ – where local services will be given extra funding to collaborate to improve social mobility.

Beneath the commitments of both parties is, I think, a renewed appetite to improve services outside traditional schools. Both Sure Start and Opportunity Areas demonstrate an acknowledgement that education services alone cannot improve life chances.

The importance of parenting support, the role that voluntary agencies can play and the notion of a ‘team around the child’ were swept off the table when Michael Gove became Education Secretary in 2010. But the realisation that schools cannot do this in isolation is increasingly dawning on the Conservative Government (I don’t think Labour ever lost it). I hope we are now seeing the beginning of a strategy that focuses on bringing together local preventative and intervention services in order to support families from the very early stages of a child’s life. I wonder what they could call it…

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