Imaginative early years will improve our children’s education

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Early Years PracticeBy Ryan Shorthouse, a researcher at the Social Market Foundation.

If we are to improve social mobility, increasing access to high-quality early years education is critical.

The government-commissioned report from MP Frank Field on poverty and life chances recommended shifting investment into services in the foundation years of a child’s life. But I don’t think the recent Spending Review shows the Government is following this advice.

Human capital experts Professors James Heckman and Pedro Carneiro show that the best returns to investment in education are earlier, as skills formation is based on two crucial concepts.

Firstly, early childhood is characterised by rapid brain development, meaning it is more responsive to external stimuli. Secondly, educational attainment improves much more rapidly for those who already have higher levels of attainment, so investment later in life to remedy poor social and cognitive development will be less effective than early investment.

The professors point out: ‘The rate of return to a dollar of investment made while a person is young is higher than the rate of return for the same dollar made at a later age.’

Despite this, and despite the Government’s welcome announcement at the Spending Review of an extra £300 million to extend free childcare hours to the most deprived two per cent of two year olds, we still spend considerably more per head on schools and tertiary education than those early years.

State schools are free for all hours. But pre-schools only provide a set number of free hours per week, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that not all do even this, instead providing the free entitlement only as part of a costly place for the whole day.

The other funding derives from parental income, which can be supported by tax credits, benefits and tax-exempt salary sacrifice childcare vouchers. Parents in the UK contribute more towards their childcare costs than any other OECD (Organisation for economic and co-operation and development) country.

The Spending Review saw an overall increase in the schools budget, rising in real terms by 0.1 per cent each year, whereas overall funding to early years education has been reduced. Yes, the free entitlement was expanded. But this was cancelled out by the reduction in demand-side funding.

The childcare element of the working tax credit, mostly used for children under five, can provide parents on low incomes up to 80 per cent of their childcare costs. But this has been reduced, meaning parents with one child will lose up to £17.50 per week in support and those with two children will lose up to £30 per week. Funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres – providing health, education and employment support for young families – will also be cut in real terms.

Overall then, it seems more money has been taken away than put in to early years education, contradicting Frank Field’s report.

With Sure Start funding now no longer ring-fenced and School Forums continuing to be responsible for the allocation of funding for the free entitlement, it is local authorities who will be in the driving seat of the fate of pre-school education in this country.

Unfortunately there is a real variation in the amount nurseries receive from different local authorities to deliver the free entitlement.

Two thirds of nurseries worry they are making a loss on the free sessions. This tough economic climate saw nearly 400 closing in 2009.

OFSTED has also reported an increase in the number of inadequate childcare settings in the most deprived areas in the past three years. If a setting is of low quality, it will deliver little return for the child and could even have a negative effect.

Higher qualified staff obviously means better educational outcomes – so nurseries need the funds and the freedom to attract top quality workers.

It is vital diversity in the childcare sector is supported. Parents not only have different preferences for the type of childcare used but also work atypical, flexible hours, and may have to reply on different providers. Childminders, who typically work longer, more flexible hours, have declined rapidly since 1997, with 40 per cent of professionals lost.

Local authorities will have to be imaginative and innovative in the years ahead. Pre-school is the most vital part of a child’s education and the best hope for increasing social mobility.

The OECD yesterday released a report showing that Britain plummeted down worldwide education rankings in the last decade, despite record levels of spending. We can reverse this trend by investing earlier in the education process.

Do you agree that early years are the most influential for improving social mobility? What changes would you suggest should be made in early education to achieve this? Join the discussion below by leaving your comments.

Source: Daily Mail

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