Stephen Timms MP: If the Government is serious about tackling injustice, a step change is needed in its approach to the early years

Posted On: 
1st December 2017

Low levels of development in the early years doesn’t just have an adverse impact on progress at school. It also damages children’s future life chances, says Stephen Timms MP.

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The early years are the key to a child’s future success.  Parents, teachers, academics and policy makers all know this.  And figures released yesterday show that poor children continue to fall behind at the very early stages of their lives. We should all be very concerned.

Children grow and learn at an extraordinary pace in their early years. It is when they start to develop their personalities, and learn communication, language and social skills which stay with them for life.

Low levels of development in the early years doesn’t just have an adverse impact on progress at school. It also damages children’s future life chances.

The poorest are affected the most. One in three children today arrive at primary school behind in key early skills like literacy, but new figures show that this proportion increases to almost half amongst the poorest children. We need to take the right steps now, starting in the early years, to avoid continuing the cycle of disadvantage for another generation of families and children.

The impact of childcare

Providing the right support in the early years means high quality childcare.

The Department for Education’s recent study of early education and development showed that, even taking into account a child’s background, attending group childcare for anything up to 35 hours a week had a positive impact, and helped close the early development gap between children.

Extending free childcare was a key pledge in my party’s election manifesto earlier this year.  That reflected the hugely important role of childcare for the whole family, and our recognition of the tight squeeze in family budgets.

But it is not just quantity we should be concerned with, it is also quality.  We know that quality teaching makes all the difference in school.  In the same way, a well-skilled nursery workforce, led by qualified Early Years Teachers, helps stop children from falling behind.

Research by Save the Children shows that children who go to a nursery without an Early Years Teacher are nearly 10% less likely to meet the expected standards of early development at age five compared to their peers.

And a study by UCL’s Institute of Education shows that attending a high-quality setting rather than a low-quality setting increases the likelihood of achieving five or more GCSEs A*-C by almost 20%.

Where are we now?

Nurseries and childcare staff are already doing a fantastic job with limited resources. But more than half a million children in England are in nurseries without a qualified early years teacher.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, told the Education Select Committee earlier this month that nurseries are good at caring for children, but that “the education side is not quite so strong”.  Data published this week by the Department for Education show only 595 people enrolled in the Early Years Initial Teacher Training Course. This won’t come anywhere near filling the critical shortage of teachers in nurseries which is holding children back.

The childcare workforce is doing an incredibly important but undervalued job. Government must recognise that. It needs to invest in nurseries to support staff properly with training and development, and employ a highly skilled workforce.

Publication in March of the Early Years Workforce Strategy seemed a step in the right direction. It recognised the crucial role of graduate teachers in the early years, and committed to a study on growing the graduate workforce in disadvantaged areas. However, there has been no sign of progress on this since. The study was due to be completed by March 2018. It is hard to see how that milestone can possibly now be achieved.

We have seen no commitment to any extra investment in the quality of provision, nor any clear long-term plans to secure quality. This is particularly worrying, given recent childcare changes, such as the roll-out of 30 free hours for working families. 

The evidence is clear. To deliver more than just warm words on social justice, we need investment in getting it right in the early years, this most pivotal point in children’s lives.  Without that, an entire generation of young children could be left behind. 

Stephen Timms is the Labour Member of Parliament for East Ham