James Berry MP: Importance of the early years - what is happening before primary school?

Posted On: 
29th June 2015

Conservative MP, James Berry, says narrowing the attainment gap at primary school ‘depends on children arriving at primary school ready and able to learn in the classroom.’

As the son of a primary school teacher and as a school governor, I understand the critical importance of a good primary school education. For me, education is the key to promoting aspiration. Our education system should be the great social leveller – so that whatever a child’s start in life, they are able to leave secondary school with the skills they need to get on in life.

Through the Pupil Premium, the last government made good on its commitment to narrow the attainment gap between children from deprived and better off backgrounds. The Pupil Premium budget was focussed at primary school level because that is the stage at which efforts to narrow the gap are most fruitful.

But narrowing the gap at primary school depends on children arriving at primary school ready and able to learn in the classroom. By the time they reach primary school at five years old, children should be starting to speak in full sentences, asking questions, and using many of the everyday words that they will need to be able to learn and make friends in the classroom. Yet, disturbingly it seems that that is not the case for many children.

Research by Save the Children for the Read On Get On campaign has found that many children are arriving at primary school over a year behind their peers in speech, language, and communications skills. Most often it’s children from deprived backgrounds who are falling behind. Hence the cyclical poverty and educational trap is perpetuated. 

Early language skills are the essential precursor to so much else, and particularly to learning to read. Unless children have developed a good vocabulary and learned how to interpret instructions and questions and comprehend a narrative, they will struggle to grasp the basics of reading and communicating. However assiduous their teachers are, lack of pre-school language skills will have a clear impact on the ability of those children to experience the full benefit of what’s going on in the classroom. Evidence suggests that children who start behind tend to stay behind, leading to many children’s life chances being predictable from a very young age.

Inevitably this draws attention to what is happening before primary school. During the general election campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron came to Advantage Daycare Nursery in my constituency to launch the Conservative commitment to 30 hours free childcare for the working parents of three and four year olds. Not only will this ease the tremendous burden that the costs of childcare can place on lower income working families’ budgets, but it also offers a unique opportunity for children’s learning outcomes too.

There is strong evidence that high quality childcare can have an enormous impact on a child’s early language development and reading ability – an impact that is more pronounced for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. As Parliament legislates to introduce the 30 hours free childcare to families up and down the country, we are presented with an unprecedented opportunity to deliver widespread high quality early education. We have the potential to improve early years language development and therefore the life chances of thousands of children. But in order to achieve this, childcare places must be high quality. 

The government has already done a lot on this. During the previous Parliament, important strides were made towards boosting quality. These included the introduction of an ‘early years teacher’ status, more rigorous degree courses for early years staff and the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) assessment which measures children’s development in a range of areas including speech and language. But there is more to do.

Of course, the quality of paid childcare isn’t the only factor – parents play an enormous role too. That is why an important part of the Read On. Get On. campaign’s work is targeted at parents, fostering a better understanding of the central role they play in their children’s language development. The campaign will also promote work with partners to deliver resources that help parents and their children to create and tell stories together.

By ensuring children are supported in language development at home and in high quality nursery placements, we can make sure that they arrive at primary school best placed to learn, do more to close the gap for the poorest children and deliver on the Conservative commitment to get all children reading well by the time they leave primary school.