Henry Smith is the MP for Crawley.
Home will always be the critical place for a child’s earliest learning and development, but childcare also plays a crucial role in modern family life.
When delivered successfully it can enable parents to work, improve family incomes and give parents peace of mind that their children are getting the best possible start. For governments , it can play a central role in efforts to drive social mobility and close the attainment gap between children. For these reasons it has become a key pillar of public policy.
Since 2010, the Government has made important steps to improve the quality of childcare, and it is welcome news that recent figures show more children than ever before are achieving a good level of development in the early years, setting them up for success throughout school and beyond.
Life chances are built on the early years. Evidence shows children with poor levels of development at age five are more likely to struggle throughout school, less likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs and it has even been shown to negatively impact their earnings, literacy skills and mental health as adults.
Getting it right in the pre-school years is not only a question of fairness, but is essential for our efforts to drive social mobility in the UK and guarantee the future prosperity of the country.
But despite progress, in my constituency of Crawley 29 per cent of children are still failing to reach the expected level of development at age five, and this figure increases to almost half of all disadvantaged children.
Similarly, the national picture shows that one in three children are starting school behind and results released today show the attainment gap between poor children and their better off peers persists, with almost half of all disadvantaged children failing to reach a good level of development. These figures show there is clearly still more work to do.
What the Government can do
Ensuring families have access to high quality childcare, led by qualified Early Years Teachers, is one of the most significant interventions we can take to ensuring all children start school ready to learn.
Evidence from the national study, the ‘Effective Provision of Pre-School Education’ (EPPE) showed that the presence of trained nursery teachers in nurseries had the biggest impact on children’s early development, and research from Save the Children has found that children without access to a graduate early years teacher are almost ten per cent less likely to meet the expected standards when they reach five.
Crucially, the impact of quality is biggest for the children most likely to fall behind, including children with special educational needs, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and boys.
Unfortunately, half a million children do not have access to this support. The large majority of children receive their early education in the private, voluntary, and independent sector, where currently two out of five nurseries do not employ Early Years Teachers.
Statistics released by the Department for Education today show only 584 people started the Early Years Initial Teacher Training Course last year, clearly far short of what is needed to fill this gap. I believe there is a clear role for government to play boosting these numbers through investing in the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce.
The Government agrees, and has taken positive steps to do so. In March this year, it published an Early Years Workforce Strategy, which recognised the vital role Early Years Teachers play in supporting children’s development, and committed to looking at ways to boost the number of Early Years Teachers, starting in disadvantaged areas.
But now more than ever, it must ensure the ambition set out in this strategy becomes a reality.
The Department for Education has set out firm plans to boost social mobility through its opportunity areas programmes – focusing support on areas which need it most – and has announced a drive to improve children’s literacy in Reception.
At the heart of this agenda must be a focus on guaranteeing families access to high quality nurseries to ensure children get the support they need as early as possible, rather than leaving children and schools struggling to play catch up. There should be nothing holding children back from reaching their full potential, especially at such an early age.