In the latest blog in our ‘A Fair Start?’ series, Dr Emma Byrne explains the benefit of high-quality early education for children.

When we talk about access to childcare, we often focus on the fact that it allows parents – mothers in particular – to return to work. This is of huge social and economic importance for families and communities but working parents aren’t the only beneficiaries of good quality early years provision. The greatest positive impact is on our children.

There is a pernicious narrative that nursery is second best when compared to time at home with a parent (usually a mother) in a tight-knit twosome. But, as I discovered when doing the research for my latest book, How to Build a Human, this kind of arrangement is extremely rare, confined as it is to industrialised nations with a large middle class. Throughout most of human history – and throughout most of the world – childcare is the work of an extended group of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents… It literally takes a village to develop the range of social, emotional and linguistic skills a child needs to thrive.

Early years provision can help to restore that village. A ground-breaking study from The Front Project in Australia and PWC shows that the amount of time a child spends playing with near-age peers, and in the care of skilled and committed early-years carers, the greater their social, emotional, and linguistic skills by the time they reach school.

Those gains aren’t short-lived either: they were still measurable through graduation. Children who accessed good-quality nursery provision were more likely to go on to higher education than their socio-economically matched peers. The improvement in life-outcomes for these children is also estimated to save the Australian government $2bn in health, social care, and criminal justice costs over the lifetime of the children who receive a year of quality preschool education. That figure only hints at the scale of improvement in each individual child’s health, happiness, and security over their lifetime.

These benefits don’t just come from freeing up parents to re-enter the workforce. Far from it. The Australia study makes clear that the benefits come from the well-qualified educators running well designed, play-based programmes that are age-appropriate. Children thrive in these settings when they experience continuity, compassion, and creativity on the part of the educators. And that takes a level of resource that most childcare settings in England just don’t have.

According to research by the Sutton Trust, 75% of providers say that they are running at a loss on the current level of funding. Early years foundation stage teaching is a skilled job that requires both initial training and continuing professional development. Provision for children with English as an additional language or specialist educational needs and disabilities requires even greater skills and investment. These are investments that can only be made by providers who can be certain of their funding, which is demonstrably not the case in England, as the Sutton Trust’s findings show.

In the face of this shortfall, providers are facing the agonising choice of either asking parents for “top-up” contributions, or of closing entirely. In less affluent areas, where few parents qualify for funding and where top-up charges put childcare out of reach for most families, early years provision has begun to vanish completely. This is in the context of a funding model that already disproportionately benefits the better off. Just 20% families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution qualify for the entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare, as opposed to 70% in the top half of the distribution.

So often we focus our outrage on the impact of this vanishing provision on parents – and it is true that the social and economic impacts on parents, and on mothers in particular, are dire. But the pernicious and prolonged impacts on children need to be highlighted too.

There has been much criticism of the government’s “levelling up” slogan, based on the fact that we don’t yet know what it means in practice. But we do know that whole-life outcomes of children are improved by early years provision. We do know that early years provision has the greatest positive impact on the children of the least wealthy and most marginalised families. We do know that the majority of children in families with no- or low earnings don’t have access to early years education. We do know that the insufficiency, complexity and uncertainty of childcare funding is driving providers out of the market. We do know that these shortfalls are disproportionately affecting those families  – indeed those entire regions – that need it most.

If the government is committed to levelling up the life chances of people in the most deprived regions, then committing to steady and sufficient early years funding should be child’s play.

Dr Emma Byrne is an author, broadcaster and a former computational neuroscientist. Her latest book, How to Build a Human, What Science Knows About Childhood is available now.

The opinions of guest authors in our A Fair Start? series do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sutton Trust.

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