Quality not quantity is key to childcare provision, says Sutton Trust

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A major UK charity has warned that recent government childcare initiatives could harm social mobility by widening the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

The Sutton Trust, which was set up in 1997 and is dedicated to improving social mobility through education, raises the concerns in its latest report, Closing Gaps Early. The report says despite significant progress in recent years, ‘there remains a substantial gap in the school readiness of less well-off children and their more advantaged classmates by the time they start school’.

In his foreword to the report, Founder and Chairman Sir Peter Lampl says:

The Sutton Trust has highlighted the importance of good quality early years education before, in our Sound Foundations report. It is therefore troubling that the direction of travel in this area seems to be away from this essential driver of social mobility. This month [September] has seen the roll-out of the new entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for working parents across the country.

However, our new report shows that unless the funding is right this could actually harm social mobility and widen the gap in school readiness. It points out that the increasing focus on quantity of childcare hours provided to support parents in the labour market threatens the quality of nursery education. And as our earlier research has demonstrated, it is quality of provision that is most crucial to ensuring that all children get the best start in life.

Closing Gaps Early examines the current state of early years policy in light of the evidence about what works. It assesses the strengths and limitations of where the UK is today, and identifies priority areas and key next steps for policy attention.

The report covers three types of early years policy: parental leave and parenting; early education and childcare; and financial support to households with young children. It is in the second of these that the authors express their concerns that, ‘recent developments indicate a shift in funding and policy focus away from quality early education for child development towards childcare affordability for working families.’

They describe as ‘particularly worrying’ that recent investments in the quantity of childcare provision are being made at the expense of the quality of early years provision:

Recent years have seen the axing of financial support for graduate training; the removal of the local authority role in continuing professional development; the lifting of the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education; and a lack of movement to improve non-graduate qualifications in response to the Nutbrown Review.

One-third of staff working in group-based care still lack either English or Maths GCSE or both. A current proposal to remove the requirement for maintained nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher is particularly worrying and could affect children in disadvantaged areas most of all.

The report makes seven recommendations:

1 – The shift in focus of childcare policy away from quality towards quantity, with less focus on educational development, is ill-advised and should be reversed. Specifically, funding should be secured to ensure that qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes, and that local authorities can continue to provide support for continuing professional development. The earlier commitment to having qualified practitioners in every early years setting should be revived as their presence is crucial for the development of disadvantaged toddlers.

2 – Parental leave policies should be extended to provide enhanced entitlements for fathers and to ensure that low-income and non-standard workers can take full advantage of them. Steps to increase leave-taking by men through measures such as providing some ‘use it or lose it’ leave and providing some leave time at a higher rate of pay — to increase father involvement and promote greater gender equity — should be a priority.

3 – Parenting policies should build on the research evidence to help parents provide the best possible early start for their children. The government should continue to trial and evaluate promising programmes while also working towards taking the most promising ones to scale.

4 – Income support for families with children, particularly those with young children, must be provided at an adequate level — so that parents can make necessary investments in their children and so that financial insecurity does not undermine the impact of other investments like parental leave, parenting policies and high quality childcare.

5 – The government should move towards giving early years teachers Qualified Teacher Status, with the increase in pay, conditions and status this would entail, and should invest in improving qualifications for all practitioners in the sector. A dedicated funding pot, similar to the old Graduate Leader Fund, is important to achieving this.

6 – Government should consider the potential adverse impact on equality of offering 30 free hours to children in working families, and explore how to avoid the policy inadvertently increasing gaps in development at school starting age.

7 – Early years policy should be informed by the best available evidence from sources such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The EEF’s Early Years Toolkit can form a valuable source of information on the most effective and cost efficient use of the early years pupil premium.

Closing Gaps Early is written by Kitty Stewart, Associate Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), and Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia School of Social Work and a visiting professor at CASE.

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