Robert Halfon MP: Government must move away from wrong-headed policies that increase disadvantage in early years education
Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon writes about his Committee’s report ‘Tackling disadvantage in the early years’ which calls for additional support for the most disadvantaged children and to convert good intentions into good outcomes for all children.
Highlighting social injustices and standing up for the disadvantaged is a key part of the work of the Education Committee and nowhere is the need to address inequalities more pressing than in the early years of life.
This week we published our report into ‘Tackling disadvantage in the early years’. The Committee’s objective is to ensure that disadvantaged children can climb up the ladder of opportunity, to strengthen our maintained nurseries and to create a network of children’s centres and family hubs.
The sad reality is that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged counterparts is already evident at aged 5. The gap more than doubles to 9.5 months at the end of primary school, and then more than doubles again to 19.3 months at the end of secondary school.
While the Government has the right intentions and some good policies, and Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi cares deeply, we find that the overall approach to early years policy is confused, lacking in direction, and failing to tackle disadvantage.
A prime example of this confused approach is the 30 hours childcare policy. While its positive intention was to help parents get back into work by giving those in jobs help with care, it is having the perverse effect of entrenching disadvantage. This wrong-headed policy is actually widening the gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers.
It cannot be right that an MP with children is entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare for their three and four year olds, while a single mother, who may not be able to work due to family circumstances, gets only 15. Even though we know that children who attend high quality pre-school were almost eight months ahead in their literacy development compared to children who had not.
We were told that the policy is a “car crash”. It is entrenching inequality, by leading to financial pressure on nurseries, providing more advantaged children with more quality childcare.
The Government should reduce the earnings cap for the 30 hours childcare and use the extra funding to provide early education for disadvantaged children.
Equally important is the need to properly fund maintained nurseries. In January 2018, all but one maintained nursery schools were rated outstanding or good. As of 2015, 64% of maintained nurseries were in 30% of the most deprived areas. They are working really well, transforming the life chances of our very young children, and the Government should be supporting them.
They face however a battle for survival. Two thirds of such nursery schools believe they will become unsustainable if transitional funding up to 2019-20 comes to an end. The Government must act now and commit to securing their future.
Time spent in high quality early education supports children’s development. It improves children’s outcomes and narrows the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children. But parenting and the home learning environment is also key.
We need a joined-up vision and direction for early years services, including children’s centres and family hubs, to give disadvantaged children the best possible start in life.
The Government should follow the example of Greater Manchester, where every child is assessed for speech and language development eight times up to the age of five, giving the opportunity to provide support.
It is a no-brainer that if we intervene and support in early years, we can avoid problems later on. We need a serious strategic and thoughtful approach and for the Government to move away from initiative-itis on the one hand and wrong-headed policies, that increase disadvantage for the disadvantaged, on the other.
It is time to convert good intentions into good outcomes for all children, to tackle social injustice in early years education and ensure that young people from all backgrounds get the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.