As the party conference season ends, I’ve been reflecting on some of the key themes that were raised over the course of the three main conferences.
Most of the discussions we held centred around the challenges faced by schools: accountability, funding, exclusions and the shortage of teachers. Our diverse panellists all had different views about the causes and possible solutions to these issues. But there was general (not absolute) consensus on the ability of schools to tackle problems that are beyond their control, including poverty, domestic trauma and mental health issues.
The burden on schools has, arguably, become heavier since austerity measures took effect. Since 2009/10, local authority spending (per head) on children’s services has fallen by 16 per cent and is due to fall by a further 4 per cent by 2019-20. This represents a cut of a fifth over the entire period.
It’s no wonder then that many school leaders tell us these wider cuts are having an impact on schools. Indeed around 2,000 head teachers went on an unprecedented march in Westminster last month to protest against funding cuts.
Over the coming months, EPI will be doing further research to investigate how school spending is changing over time (and in response to wider pressures) and whether we can see any relationship between school spending patterns and local authority spending on services.
But even without that further research, there is already evidence that policy-makers should consider – particularly in the run-up to the spending review. First, and my prevailing argument in any discussion about funding and outcomes, is that we know that 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16 is already evident at age five. So there is a strong argument that support and intervention should be targeted in the early years.
Second, recent research published by the University of Sorbonne in Paris this month supports existing findings that early years provision (in group settings) can have a lasting, positive effect on behaviour and social and emotional skills.
This latest study will come as no surprise to those of us familiar with the work of economist James Heckman, EPPSE and others which demonstrates the lasting effect of high-quality intervention in the early years.
And so, ahead of the spending review, the Government needs to consider not only the powerful argument around school funding, but the difference that investment in the early years can make.
‘Childcare may prevent emotional and behavioural problems later’, 3 October;
‘Sector gives cautious welcome to Labour childcare pledges’, 1 October; and
‘Labour unveils “radical” plans on childcare funding and workforce’, 25 September – all at www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news