19 Feb 2018, Catherine Gaunt
I’m delighted to have the opportunity to introduce myself in writing to the readers of Nursery World. My first few weeks at the Department for Education have been a whirlwind of activity, and I’ve been given a very warm welcome by everyone I’ve met in that time. I am in no doubt about the enormous difference you make in the lives of our youngest children.
Already I am hearing of the dedication and passion you put into your work, and the support you give the children in your care. In amongst the many briefings and meetings that inevitably accompany a new job, I have made a point of meeting with as many councils and childcare providers as possible in these early weeks, to hear directly from the people on the ground. We share a desire to make sure that no child is at a disadvantage, regardless of their circumstances.
Before entering politics, as a founder of YouGov, I spent 10 years observing human behaviour. The experience taught me about the way people think, their interests and how they go about their everyday lives. Becoming Member of Parliament for Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 put me in the fortunate position of learning even more about people’s lives and being able to represent their concerns. The common theme running through both is people’s hopes and fears for their children and grandchildren, and of support for the individuals who make such a difference in their early lives.
I recently visited Hindley Nursery School in Wigan and met with their excellent leadership team led by the inspiring head teacher Rachel Lewis. Rachel told me not just about the transformative power that quality early years education can have on young children, but also about the central role that nurseries can play in communities as a support network for families.
During my visit I was fortunate enough to meet with parents who had recently gone through some difficult times and I was grateful for their frank accounts of how the nursery supported their children. One parent told me about the trouble his son had had before he took up his place at the nursery, and how much his speech had improved as a result. Another mother told me about how her daughter had grown in confidence since attending the nursery. She talked to me about how the nursery staff were not just caring for her daughter, but for her too.
That’s why I am so pleased to take up the Children and Families post at the Department for Education. It is very clear to me that as well as providing the vital early education that our children need, childcare providers play an equally important role in supporting parents, grandparents and carers.
I want to work closely with you to keep raising the bar, building on the excellent provision already in place. We already have more than 200,000 children from all over the country benefitting from our 30-hours childcare offer, and the number of eligible parents receiving and validating their codes is growing every term. The offer is saving parents money and helping many of them get back into work or increase their hours. I have heard, both as Minister and before that, of the challenges introducing the offer has brought in some areas, as with any new policy of its kind – but I’m delighted that providers and councils have risen to meet these challenges with huge success, and I’m grateful for their incredible hard work to date.
We already have 94 per cent of childcare providers rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, meaning that more parents than ever before can be confident that their child has access to a high-quality early years place.
Research shows that children benefit from different types of childcare provision available, and their different skillsets are enhanced depending on whether they attend a nursery, childminder, pre-school or a combination. So I want to be a champion for every part of our dedicated workforce, building on what we have already set out in our Early Years Workforce Strategy to support their professional development.
In my first week at the department I visited Doncaster, one of the Government’s 12 Opportunity Areas, to hear about the projects aimed at raising aspirations across every stage of the education system and beyond. I myself know only too well how the opportunities experienced early on in life play an important role in shaping the way for future success. And although the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers continues to close at age five, there are still far too many cases where background or where you live dictates opportunity.
In many of the 12 Opportunity Areas, early years is playing a huge role in boosting social mobility: in Stoke, where work is focusing on improving Early Years Foundation Stage Profile results; or in West Somerset, where they are targeting the number of eligible families to increase the uptake of the free childcare offer for two-year-olds.
As a father, I have nothing but admiration for the work you do and the way you approach your jobs. I know only too well of the patience, commitment and energy that your work often requires. I look forward to meeting with as many of you as possible over the coming months, to hear directly from you about the challenges we face together, and to continue promoting your profession as an exciting career path for future generations.