We must properly invest in early years education, ensuring equality of opportunity
By investing in early years education we can help address lifelong inequalities caused by educational differences, determining income, opportunities and contributing to patterns of social mobility, writes Alex Norris MP.
Education should be the great leveller. No matter what your background, who your parents are, your socio-economic status - in England, every child is entitled to a school place alongside their peers where they receive an education that enables them to make what they want of their life. Now, none of us would pretend that the education system is perfect. The dedication and hard work of our teachers cannot make up for ten years of austerity that have starved our kids of resources and left them learning in rundown buildings. But I’d like to think we all agree on the basic principle - that education should give everyone a fair shot at the same achievements.
But, that’s just not the case. The truth is that children who grow up in poor families emerge from our school system with substantially lower levels of educational attainment. In 2020, kids are effectively being written off before they have even started school.
This gap between those from rich families and those from poor families has remained persistently large for decades. These educational differences have significant implications for the adult lives of these individuals, with educational qualifications determining income and opportunities and contributing to patterns of social mobility.
Ethnic differences, distinct from income, region, or other factors, have an impact on the level of educational attainment of these children. In my constituency of Nottingham North, white working-class boys are particularly concerning, as white children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group in the country. In 2015, only 595 of white British boys known to be eligible for free school meals achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics. This was 21 percentage points behind the national average. In addition, 24.6% of white British boys eligible for Free School meals achieved 5 GCSEs A*-C, compared to a national average of 58.8%.
This attainment gap can come from a variety of factors. Stereotyping and bias, stress at home or negative attitudes towards education from parents and peers can all inhibit children's potential and performance at school, giving the perception that school doesn’t matter and leaving untold wasted talent in their wake.
All of this underscores the crucial importance of early years education in addressing lifelong inequalities, as well as the need for more critical analysis of the policies which underpin early years education.
Some schools have already begun to work on ways to bridge the attainment gap, through enhancing pupils’ emotional wellbeing, working with parents and teachers to raise expectations, and securing access to high quality early years education and care. In Nottingham North, the National Lottery funded ‘A Better Start’ programme is funding local partnerships to test new ways of making support and service for families stronger, to give children the best start in life.
The Labour Party has always been committed to the importance of early year education, and the introduction of Sure Start under Tony Blair was designed to give every child the best possible start in life, with health and family support alongside childcare and early education, and an emphasis on outreach and community development.
That Tory cuts closed hundreds of Sure Start centres is a source of shame. Successive Tory Governments since 2010 have failed to invest in early years education, providing only enough funding to meet the cost of inflation, despite many early years’ providers struggling to make ends meet.
In 2020, its simply not good enough that the Government is writing off certain kids at the age of five, allowing their backgrounds to inhibit their chances for the rest of their lives. Warm words about the importance of improving outcomes will change nothing. We need to make these children a priority, and that means properly investing in early years education, with equality of opportunity becoming a reality for the many once again.
Alex Norris is the Labour Member of Parliament for Nottingham North and is the Opposition Whip.