Fighting over the scraps

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When it comes to funding and positive action, the early years sector has received slim pickings from the Government in 2018

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

As 2018 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how well the Government has delivered on Theresa May’s pledge to fight the “burning injustices” faced by disadvantaged and minority groups.

The year started with a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle, which saw the appointment of Damian Hinds as Education Secretary and Nadhim Zahawi as junior minister for children and families – both relatively unknown names within education circles.

My first column of the year, perhaps optimistically, suggested that if Hinds were to act upon the social mobility priorities he set out as a backbencher – to improve early identification, parenting programmes, target the hardest-to-reach children and develop the early years workforce – it would represent good progress for both early years and social mobility policies.

Since then, small policy announcements of a pot of money here and there have trickled out of the Department for Education. Most recently, Hinds announced a total of £18 million to support early language and parental engagement through charitable grants, a training programme for health visitors and the trialling and evaluation of schemes to encourage parents to support their child’s learning (delivered through the Education Endowment Foundation).

None of this is to be sniffed at. Anything which raises the profile of the early years and supports evidence-based programmes is a welcome intervention. But the reality is that, by the time the £18 million is shared out among a myriad of organisations, some of it sucked up by administrative costs, it’s unlikely to be game-changing.

And it is game-changing policy that the early years sector longs for. All of the evidence shows that high quality intervention in the early years can have a lasting effect on a child’s life. Yet the Government seems to have U-turned on plans to ensure there are more graduate early years teachers in disadvantaged areas. In addition, research by the Sutton Trust this year estimated that around 1,000 Children’s Centres have closed since 2009.

In order to help support disadvantaged families in the early years, we need a high-quality, professional workforce, coupled with universal early support and intervention services. And schools, which are paying the price of cuts to Sure Start, social services and youth services, agree. In the words of one well-respected multi-academy trust CEO I met recently, ‘the best thing the Government could do would be to bring back Sure Start’.

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