Early Education: Ensuring every child has a strong start

Senior Education Lead and Head of our Primary Network, Laura Burton, explores what is emerging on the political landscape around early years education and childcare as we head towards the General Election and what more is needed to ensure every child has the strong start they deserve.

Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, once wrote: ‘Early childhood education is the key to the betterment of society’. The impact of a child’s formative years on their future lives cannot be underestimated, and investing in every aspect of their development must be a priority for not only caregivers, educators and leaders, but also society as a whole. A number of studies and reports have shown that experiences within the first five years of a child’s live can directly impact and shape their future, with children who achieve well at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage going on to achieve higher results at GCSE1. For children who are living in challenging circumstances or those living in poverty, the importance of early years education is even more significant. Data from the Department for Education showed that the early years attainment gap, which had been narrowing before the pandemic, has started to widen further, with the gap between children eligible for free school meals meeting expected early learning goals 20 percentage points lower than their peers in 20232. As we head toward a general election, it is vitally important that early education is high on the agenda for politicians, with a real opportunity for the next government to put in place a set of robust policies, with a clear plan of action, to invest in the lives of our youngest members of society now and for their futures into adulthood.

As we approach the election, I have been watching political updates and live debates with interest, to hear what direction wider education policy might take after July 4th, and in particular what that might mean for early years education. The current government policy for funded childcare support sees eligible working families of children between 3 and 4 years able to access up to 30 hours a week while those parents who are in full time education or training or those from lower income households, able to access the universal offer of 15 hours. Expansion of the current offer is due to take place in September 2024 (which may well be affected with the election on the horizon), which will see eligible working parents of younger children able to access 15 hours of support with no additional offer for other families3. As a working mother myself, having two children who, over the years, have accessed nursery provision from 9 months old, support such as this would be very welcome. But it does seem to me that policy here is perhaps not focused on the most important stakeholder: the child.

Within Labour’s plan for schools, there is an intention to ‘deliver high and rising standards in early education with childcare that delivers life chances for children as well as work choices for parents’4. Whilst it is currently not clear if a Labour government would continue the current planned expansion of free childcare, with Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson having commissioned a review of current planned changes and as yet not sharing any other insight into the party’s intention, there has been other emerging plans from the party on how they will achieve their vision for early education. With intention to ‘improve the quality of provision and… availability of childcare places’ along with indication that wider curriculum changes may be a focus, gives us an insight into which direction a Labour government may take. Other plans include toothbrushing for reception children along with universal breakfast clubs, both positive plans but at this stage, more detail and clarity would be needed to see how these approaches would address the poverty related attainment gap.

The Liberal Democrats plan for Early Years appears to be centred around accessible childcare for all parents, including reviewing the funding for providers to ensure it adequately covers the cost of ‘delivering high-quality childcare and early years education’5.

Over the coming weeks, we will learn more, and party manifestos will be published. What I hope to see is clarity and distinction in policy plans between ‘childcare’ and ‘early education’. There is a danger that the hourly entitlement will be the sole focus rather than looking deeper into the needs of our youngest learners and the settings providing their education and care. Given the attainment gap at the end of the Reception year between children eligible for free school meals and their peers, along with the fact that only 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the 30 hours of early education and childcare for 3-4 year olds6, there needs to be clear plans on how the next government will address these core issues and how they will ensure all children receive a strong start.

There must be a focus on quality provision alongside any planned expansion of entitlement, and funding will need to be considered, in detail, in order for early education settings to be able to provide a truly universal, quality offer. This would also include looking at the Early Years Pupil Premium and how this can be reviewed to better support disadvantaged children in early years settings. Funding would also need to be invested into the early years workforce, where practitioners are recognised and valued with appropriate pay, there is an investment to facilitate CPD in order to train, recruit and retain the very best staff, with relevant qualifications, to care and teach our youngest children.

In the first article in our election series, SSAT CEO Sue Williamson began with the most important consideration – ‘Education must be central’7. As more detail emerges about what the different party manifestos may contain, there does seem to be emerging priorities within early education but these do seem vague in places, without clear roadmaps for implementation at this stage. With this being such a high profile area both politically and with schools and parents, there is a real opportunity for the next government to map out clear policies that truly supports child development, seeks to close attainment gaps for disadvantaged children whilst also supporting working parents and families.

  1. Student’s educational and developmental outcomes at age 16, Department for Education, 2014
  2. Inequality in early years education, The Sutton Trust, 2024
  3. Free childcare: how we are tackling the cost of childcare, Department for Education, 2024
  4. Breaking down the barriers to opportunity, Labour, 2024
  5. For a fair deal, Liberal Democrats, 2024
  6. A fair start? Equalising access to early education, The Sutton Trust, 2021
  7. General Election: Education must be central, SSAT, 2024

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