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Children’s literacy and narrowing the early years gap should be a national mission

Children’s literacy and narrowing the early years gap should be a national mission
4 min read

Damian Hinds sets out why high-quality early years education and development is a core priority for his department

A child’s education begins long before he or she arrives in a classroom. The things they learn as infants are the building blocks that can shape their future development, including how well they do at school and later in life.

If a child starts school struggling to communicate and speak in full sentences, then they are already on the back foot; and on average, children aged five from a disadvantaged background are already four months behind their more affluent peers.

This becomes a millstone – if you are behind from the start, it is hard to catch up.

That is why I believe high-quality pre-school education and childcare is fundamental to social mobility and making sure everyone has the chance to realise their potential.

Social mobility is a cause that has driven much of my political career – in fact, it is why I went into politics in the first place. No one should find that their prospects are limited, or their potential undiscovered, because of where they were born or what their parents do.

When I was chair of the social mobility APPG, we found that the greatest point of leverage for social mobility is the very earliest time in life – what happens from 0 to 3 years old.

That’s why, as education secretary, I am making high-quality early years education and development a core priority for my department.

We have a lot of good work to build on. This government introduced 15 hours of free early education a week for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is on top of the 15 hours’ free childcare offer for all three- and four-year-olds, which we doubled to 30 hours for working parents.

We are now seeing more children start school ready and able to learn and, since 2010, the gap between the development of rich and poor kids has fallen by 14%.

However, there is more to do. It is not acceptable that 28% of children finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive. My ambition is to cut that number in half over the next 10 years.

To help realise this ambition, we are investing in more school-based nursery provision in disadvantaged areas, as well as extra training for early years professionals to support young children’s early development.

However, most of a child’s life is spent at home and we can’t afford to ignore this when it comes to social mobility.

No one teaches you how to be a parent. Some of it is instinctive, but much isn’t. Although you pick things up from your own family and friends, you’re always conscious of what you don’t know. This can be a particular struggle for parents who are time poor or have their own literacy struggles.

I’ve seen for myself that giving parents that want it extra support and advice can have fantastic results. One visit that will always stick with me was to Rothesay Nursery School in Luton, where I joined a session supporting parents and children to do more reading and language development at home. Some of those children had started the sessions unable to speak and now their mums couldn’t stop them talking. These women (while fighting to get a word in edgeways) were understandably proud of this transformation and no longer quite so anxious about how their children would get on when they reached school.

It’s clear that parents can welcome a helping hand – but it’s not always easy to know where to get advice or how to access it. That’s why my department will be launching a competition to identify high-quality apps for helping with children’s development, with the aim of making these free and easily accessible. 

Ultimately, however, we need child literacy to be a society-wide ambition.

To achieve this, I have invited businesses, media, charities and other organisations to be part of a coalition to raise awareness and build parents’ confidence around what they can do to help their child’s early language development.

Later this year we will host a summit with the National Literacy Trust to explore ways to boost early language development and reading in the home.

We have the likes of Public Health England, as well as leading businesses including WHSmith, British Land and KPMG attending. And I’m pleased that both ITV and the BBC are also on board.

I want us all to make children’s literacy and narrowing the early years gap a national cause, a national mission. In this way we can help build a country where everyone has a chance to make the most of themselves. 

Damian Hinds is Conservative MP for East Hampshire and secretary of state for education

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