There is gloomy news in the National Children’s Bureau report Greater Expectations, published last week. Having looked at data on British children’s lives now, compared with a 1973 study of 11-year olds, the NCB found that:
- many more children grow up in poverty today – 3.5m compared to 2m
- those disadvantaged children are less likely to be developing well at age 4 and less likely to do well at school.
- children living in deprived areas are much more likely to be obese, to suffer injury in the home and miss out on the green space, places to play and relatively unpolluted environments enjoyed by children from wealhier districts.
Fifty years of ‘progress’ have left us with more children suffering poverty, and persistent inequality of achievement and expectation. If the UK did as well as the best other countries, the NCB goes on to say:
- we would have nearly one million fewer poor children
- more than 170 fewer children would suffer accidental deaths each year
- well over a quarter of a million more 15 to 19-year olds would carry on in education or training
- nearly 800,000 more children would live in decent homes.
So far, so depressing. But, buried in a report full of failure and missed opportunities, is one unequivocal change for the better. One that is worth highlighting, because there is a danger that even this bit of progress is at risk.
In the early 1970s only one in seven (14 per cent) poor children attended some form of pre-school, in a playgroup or nursery. Over the last five years, nearly every three and four year old (96 per cent) has had at least 15 hours a week of free nursery education. This is thanks to the huge investment in quality childcare made by the last Labour government, and – important to acknowledge – the continued priority given to early years under the coalition government.
Why is this investment important? The facts are clear but maybe not well-enough known: children develop fast in their earliest years and good-quality pre-school is one of the most effective ways to foster that development and improve behaviour and attainment well into the school years. The simple truth is that the effort in the last decade to offer children that good pre-school experience is beginning to pay off.
As these charts show*.
1. More children are achieving a good level of development before they start Year One at school:
2. The gap in development between rich and poor areas is narrowing:
3. And children at the lower end are catching up with the average:
You would struggle to find another area of government policy that could boast such an impact, including other areas of education policy that attract more attention.
As a story in today’s Guardian, reporting encouraging news on the reading attainment of England’s 7-year olds, noted:
“Children in London outperformed all other regions, suggesting that the concentration on early years education introduced by the previous Labour government, along with the rise in school quality in the capital, has paid off.”
But this, I repeat, is the result of a consistent focus on availability of good-quality early education, across two different governments. Crucially, we haven’t simply made nursery care more available; it has been nursery care shaped by evidence about what works for children. The coalition government decided early in its term that the purpose of free early education was explicitly to aid children’s development.
Obviously, childcare can serve other purposes too, notably helping parents to balance work and family life. When things work well, children get the learning they need and the labour market benefits from more parents being available for work. But it is important to keep the primary purpose in mind, because if childcare falls below good quality it may still keep parents in jobs but it doesn’t have anything like the same positive impact on children’s futures.
There’s always a cloud for every silver lining, of course. It is worrying that recent debate on childcare has begun to blur this previously clear policy purpose. The debate has increasingly focused on the cost of childcare, with government Ministers preoccupied by showing working mothers that they are taking steps to make childcare more available and affordable. Hence the complicated and yet to be delivered tax-free childcare scheme, and half-baked attempts to have more children looked after by each adult by relaxing the child:staff ratios and to encourage schools to admit younger children.
Helping families work is really important. But pursuing it at the cost of the quality of early learning risks being a seriously false economy in the longer term.
*Source: DfE SFR 23/2012: Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Results in England 2011/12