Laura Barbour explains the background to the recent Sound Foundations report.

I wish that when I was a mother of a toddler, I’d had a better understanding of child development. I might then have marvelled at Nancy’s concentration as she rearranged the contents of the kitchen cupboard, rather than felt frustration as she created chaos and appeared determined to ignore my repeated requests when I called her to come for a meal.

I now understand better that it was all part of Nancy’s development and that I should have first got her attention by calling her name and then guided her towards washing her hands. Parents are not necessarily familiar with child development – or how to support it – and that is also true of many of those who decide to embark on a career of working with young children. Two distinct aspects of knowledge are important: the first, to understand child development, the second to know how to support that child’s development.

Today, the Sutton Trust has published an Oxford University report which aims to answer the question, “What does research tell us about the quality of early childhood education and care for children under three and what are the implications for policy and practice?”

The report reviews quality based on evidence and has four key findings: positive relationships between child and practitioner support for communication and language, learning through play with the child taking the lead, and opportunities for being physically active. The latter two act as a useful reminder with the recent attention given to a more formal approach to early education. Not surprisingly good quality staffing underpins good quality practice and this is based on appropriate qualifications and ongoing training.

Back in February 2010, Professor Jane Waldfogeland Liz Washbrooke, identified an 11 month gap in cognitive development between those children from the lowest income and those from middle income families at the start of school, which was further clarified in 2012 at the social mobility summit as a 19th month gap between the least and the most advantaged. It was this piece of research that has underpinned the Sutton Trust’s subsequent early years’ priorities; supporting the home learning environment and parents as the primary educators but also looking at provision outside of the home.

At the time, the Labour government was promising to extend its nursery education entitlement to provide 15 hours a week to all three and four year olds. The Sutton Trust recommended extending the entitlement to two year olds from the 15% most disadvantaged families. It was a recommendation based on sound research including findings from the EPPE study that the duration of attendance over a period of time had a more positive impact particularly on children from low income families than more concentrated attendance for a shorter period but also with a consideration to the economic viability of the proposal. Labour did make the commitment to extend the entitlement to two year olds which was implemented by the Coalition.

It is welcome news that four years later the Government is not only keen to continue funding places for two year olds from low income families but also increasing the budget. However there is a risk here that their commitment to extend the entitlement to larger numbers rather than focusing on the most important element of all, ensuring that provision is of the highest quality that the policy will fail to have the desired impact.  Today’s report suggests concentrating the increased budget on the existing smaller group of eligible two year olds (20%) and ensuring that the money is spent on improving the quality of provision before expanding the numbers reached to 40%.

Even within existing targets, there is an issue with capacity. In many areas there was not space within existing early education provision to easily accommodate the original funded offer for 20% of two year olds. Partly in response to this there are a variety of different settings providing the entitlement including home based child-minders, standalone nursery schools, provision within children’s centres and more recently primary schools.  This is positive because it provides choice and different settings have their own particular strengths and challenges.  The challenge for a primary school setting might be to achieve the kind of cosy environment for a two year old that a child minder will do easily but the child-minder may have to access additional support for child development from an external source. The report usefully addresses these individual challenges.

Often we pay lip service to the importance of quality in early childhood education. Today’s report gives a clear definition of what this means for the under threes, using a review of the existing evidence base. It is not looking to reinvent the wheel, indeed in many cases it points towards existing practice guidance. It is clear that implementing quality provision has financial implications including increased costs both for training and salaries. Quality is not just an ideal; it is fundamental. Poor quality provision not only fails to support child development; it can have a detrimental effect. So, whilst it is fantastic to see further investment in the two year provision the priority must be quality not quantity.

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