Speakers Ellen Broome from the Family and Childcare Trust and Dr Helen Stephenson from the Department for Education were joined by Nick Dakin MP, Baroness Tyler, Baroness Armstrong and a range of stakeholders for a round table discussion of early years education provision.
The APPG for Education was delighted to host a meeting on the question of whether current early years provision prepares children for schools. The Group was addressed by Ellen Broome, Director of Policy, Research and Communications at the Family and Childcare Trust, and Dr Helen Stephenson, Director – Early Years and Childcare at the Department for Education.
Ellen provided a summary of current early years provision in schools, explaining that the vast majority of childcare takes place outside of the school setting, mostly provided by the private sector. Not enough children receive quality childcare and one way of improving it is to increase the amount of provision in schools. However, the limited hours during which school based childcare operates is a barrier, as it makes it hard for working parents to access. Schools need to demystify childcare for low income parents.
Ellen welcomed the introduction of a baseline assessment as it will improve accountability of primary schools. Ellen also welcomed the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP), with the caveat that it is a mini-step as it is a small amount of money compared to the Pupil Premium Grant. She also expressed concern that the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector may not be able to use the EYPP effectively.
Ellen questioned if the purpose of early years provision is to prepare children for school. For most disadvantaged children, she argued, there are more important skills that we would like them to gain than just being ready to be students. Finally Ellen raised the issues of workforce development and pay in the childcare sector.
Helen began by stating that the answer to the meeting’s question is, yes, early years provision does prepare children for school. But, crucially, it also prepares them for life with skills such as the ability to work in a group and interact with others. There is a direct academic benefit of early years education, including at GCSE but also throughout life.
Helen agreed that it would be beneficial to have more provision in school, but stressed the importance of having a range of providers and settings, including good quality PVI providers, and ensuring that enough time is spent in childcare.
Helen described the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers as stubborn, but said that EYPP was a good step forward. She believes that PVI providers will be read to administer the extra money and her team are currently preparing case studies of best practice and guidance. She highlighted the tension in the relationship between quality of childcare and affordability; attempts to alter one aspect can distort the other. She concluded that the pillars for good early years provision are in place and all evidence suggests that the government is right to be investing in this area.
The presentations were followed by points and discussion from the floor.
Ellen began the discussion by responding to some of Helen’s points, stressing the need to prioritise putting children in the right setting for their personal development. Helen noted that only 15% of providers are rated as requiring improvement or worse by Ofsted. However, Martin Huleatt noted that this still translates into thousands of children.
There was discussion of whether or not Local Authorities were the most appropriate bodies to control EYPP funding. It was also noted that some LAs have found it difficult to maintain investment in early years provision because of cuts to their budgets. The question was posed that, if childcare is a national priority, how can it be devolved down to the local level?
Ellen made the point that childcare does not exist in a bubble; if other aspects of family support are not in place, early years provision wills struggle. She posed the question of how early years provision can be placed at the top of the government’s agenda, considering the evidence shows that it makes the biggest difference to a child’s life chances.
Several people stressed the importance of organisations, such as Homestart, which help parents rather than the state lecturing them. Cooperation between the Department of Health and Department for Education was highlighted as being particularly vital; for example, the introduction of Community Nursery Nurses. But central government edicts are not particularly helpful.
Baroness Tyler described her work with the APPG for Social Mobility, which has confirmed the importance of parental involvement. She too stressed the importance of joining up the work of the health and education departments.
Ellen raised the issue of childcare for disabled children, which she said has failed very badly. She also noted that the quasi-free market nature of childcare provision means that some companies choose not to provide services in disadvantaged areas, meaning that those who need the most support, actually receive the least.
Baroness Armstrong stressed the need for firm, properly enforced policies on childcare. She cited Wales, where funding for training was only given for certain schemes which were accepted as best practice and results were far better than in England which has several options. She stressed the benefit of providers in, for example, Sure Start Centres, having health backgrounds.
There was discussion of the take up of childcare amongst disadvantaged children. Baroness Tyler explained that evidence gathered from the APPG for Social Mobility’s Inquiry showed that the poorest quality provision is in the most disadvantaged areas. She said that there is a need to target funding such as the EYPP more sharply into these areas and to reach out to parents to involve them in their child’s learning. The country needs a national parenting campaign that does not seem threatening – it is the last great taboo. Baroness Armstrong agreed, saying that the state has a responsibility to tell parents what good practice is. There was general agreement in the room that more advice is needed for parents, especially after the age of three.
Nic Dakin MP thanked everyone for attending the meeting and closed the discussion at 5.15pm. An informal discussion then continued.