This is the first of a new series of guest blogs about our campaign for early years reform. James Hempsall* discusses why changing the current early education policy is so important.
I welcome the Sutton Trust A Fair Start? report for highlighting the case for improving access to early education and childcare for the least advantaged children. There always has been a case. In fact, there are many cases. There are several outcomes and impacts that would be supported by refocusing and refreshing the offer or indeed entitlements – which is a much better way of putting it.
For 20 years or more, we have witnessed incremental changes to the early years and childcare sector. Steps to change have been ambitious and far reaching, they have transformed the sector, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. It has the feel of a wall being covered in different sheets of wallpaper, one each year, the pattern changes as fashion dictates. The result is a mille feuille of policy and practice. I really shouldn’t mix my metaphors so recklessly. But my point is that we keep adding layers rather than stripping things back to create a policy fit for purpose, fit for modern families, and able to truly impact on the effects of disadvantage, reducing the learning and attainment gap, and supporting families’ economic chances and choices. Sometimes we have a roll of childcare, then we might have a roll of early learning. The frustration for me is they only serve to create artificial differences in a sector that simply needs to be more united.
I’ve spent the past 10 years working directly on the national implementation of funding for least advantaged two-year-olds (15 hours of early learning), and 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds of working families (childcare). All alongside providers, local authorities and DfE. Much has been achieved, but there are things that need sorting properly. I agree there is need for change. I support a move to reform. We all need to talk this through, and listen, and be prepared to address what isn’t working.
The case for investment in early years and childcare has been made. It astounds me how many people now appreciate the argument and the cause, from many different sectors and specialisms. We need no more evidence. We need action instead. But what?
Currently, the least advantaged two-year-olds can receive 15 hours early learning a week. Then all three- and four-year-olds can receive 15 hours. Alongside that, if your parents are working and meet the criteria, 30 hours childcare is available for three- and four-year-olds. Seems simple enough. However, the reality is the number of two-year-olds eligible has declined, and I would like to see more being eligible, not less. Also, it can take great efforts and investment to find and reach and enable two-year-olds to take up their place. Things should be simpler. Low- or no-income families typically experience all sorts of barriers to accessing and navigating through complex systems of applications, checking and reconfirming. Seriously, we need to lighten up and relax. This is good government investment, what are the risks we are seeking to mitigate by such labyrinths of process? If young children access good quality learning before they start school they will benefit. We should not be afraid of that.
Personally I would like to see all children receive at least a basic entitlement of early learning and childcare from the age of two at the latest. I think 30 hours is a reasonable goal. In reality I suspect take-up patterns would be more along the lines of 20-25 hours. That gives a good, easily understood and generous offer. It also falls in line with research that found it a sufficient number of hours to impact on learning outcomes at that age. This will also support what some people call the school readiness test. Whatever that means. I have blogged on that subject before, many times. I conclude we need a greater connection between early years and statutory school without diminishing the unique qualities and value of both.
Now, I have no problem with other services being offered to families that work. We should be supporting families to balance work and life through available, affordable and quality childcare, that includes learning and fun and enjoyment for children. We should be breaking multi-generational unemployment patterns in the most disadvantaged families. Therefore, if there is an extended childcare need, beyond a 30 hour universal entitlement, we should be doing whatever we can to support and subsidise it. All funding rates need to reflect the investment required and outcomes aimed for, and to grow the profession, rather than the unambitious and imperfect attempts at covering average costs of current delivery (which in reality was sometime time ago). The Early Years Pupil Premium and other add-on funding for SEND should be automatically applied, not as is current practice, another thing to find out about, apply for, and evidence. All this is affordable. In fact we cannot afford not to. The investment is returned in spades. There’s plenty of research that shows that.
For over thirty years he has worked in the children’s services sector driving service improvement, effecting change, and leading national implementation of key Government programmes in pre-school learning and childcare. His work has focused on improving learning outcomes for all children with a particular emphasis on least advantaged children, parental employment, equalities and anti-discriminatory practice. His career has been spent supporting organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors to develop high quality and sustainable childcare, and support families to break the cycles and symptoms of disadvantage and poverty.