I spent some time over the weekend thinking about news reports and discussions I recently had with colleagues in the early years’ world.
In the past few weeks we have seen calls for a stronger emphasis on language skills for children in reception classes, discussions regarding the definition to be used to describe child poverty, research which found that the language skills of poor boys at age 5 lag 15 months behind their peers and the proposals in the Childcare Bill to increase the free nursery entitlement from fifteen to thirty hours.
All these issues while reported separately are closely connected. We know that the early years of a child’s life are important in setting a course for the future. The circumstances you are born into are still significant indicators of future outcomes e.g. maternal health, housing conditions, money, the educational achievement of parents, cultural norms etc. As Feinstein et al pointed out the complex way the various factors interrelate must be considered if we are to address issues of lost potential.
The Childcare Bill was criticised in the Lords last week for the lack of clarity. To me the Bill seems to be focused purely on economic imperatives. This view is further supported by the fact that the chair of the task force looking into the free childcare expansion is Priti Patel Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions.
Supporting families to care and support their children is more complicated than providing childcare, so that they can work. I have no issue with parents going to work, increasing finance within poorer families is a good aim, as this brings choice and security. However, I do have grave concerns when the only talk is about the number of childcare hours and statements about quality are vague. In the week the Bill was announced there was very little discussion about the effect upon children or about how parents can be confident that their child will be well cared for while they work.
The government has since said that there are more highly qualified practitioners in early years settings and more settings are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. However, there is still much to do. We know that a greater proportion of settings which only meet minimum standards are in less advantaged areas, due to difficulties of being able to pay staff more than the minimum wage and therefore keep experienced well qualified staff or invest in professional development.
We also know from longitudinal research that in order to achieve the greatest impact for the least advantaged children the quality has to be outstanding. The government needs to step up and recognise that just providing more hours will not automatically improve child or family outcomes and may actually be detrimental for children who are already less advantaged.
If we are to ensure that all children can succeed we need a joined up approach, where links are made between policy and the complex needs of families. Government needs to engage with the early years sector to consider how to balance the needs of working parents and to ensure children are in settings which sustain high quality. For our part as early years practitioners we need to be advocates for what works to support parents to enable their children to flourish.