Government education reforms fail to address early learning gap, warns Save the Children

In light of fresh neurological evidence, CEO Tanya Steele claims the government should also be focusing on improving nurseries for early learners. 

We need to have a conversation about what ‘education’ means. In the first three months of this year, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Education Secretary all made big commitments for major changes to improve the quality of education and give children the best start in life.   

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Yet by ‘education’, they are entirely focussed on schools – reforming how schools are funded, giving them more independence, changing school teacher qualifications and ‘ending the 3:30pm school bell’ by announcing more money to extend school hours.

I don’t want to downplay the central role schools play in children’s chances of doing well in life. But school is already too late for some children.

So much of a child’s development takes place before they walk through the school gates for the first time. Yesterday, Save the Children has published evidence from leading neuroscientists showing how children’s pre-school years are the most rapid period of development for a child’s speech, language, cognitive and social skills. But children who struggle in their early years can quickly be left far behind as others motor ahead.

Shockingly, six children in every reception class don’t have the language and communications skills they need to succeed at school. Children from all walks of life are affected, but the poorest children fare the worst – by their fifth birthday, a child from a disadvantaged background lags more than a year behind their classmates.

It is a huge mistake for us to let this early learning gap open up, as the evidence shows that those who start behind, stay behind. Instead of waiting for school, we need the Government’s plan for education to focus on getting every child ready for school.

Given how much early learning takes place in the home, parents are of course at the heart of this. As a parent, you’re given lots of advice, information and support with your child’s early physical development, health and nutrition – but we need all the services you access in your child’s early years to give as much priority to early learning.

To support this, the Government’s commitment to extend access to parenting classes is welcome and Save the Children as part of the Read On. Get On. coalition have been working with partners including the Daily Mirror and Ladybird Books on resources to help parents boost early learning at home.

But we also now have a nursery system that reaches almost every toddler in the country. More than nine in ten children aged three and four currently go to nursery for up to 15 hours a week. Yet this huge shift in nursery attendance hasn’t been matched by a shift in expectations on nursery quality. 

The Government’s ambitions for every child going to a great school aren’t echoed in a determination to ensure they have access to the best nurseries. In their vision for educational excellence, why aren’t ministers looking beyond schools and also challenging underperformance in early learning and championing nursery quality and staff qualifications?

Thousands of nurseries still don’t employ a single qualified early years teacher and struggle to afford to pay for training for other staff. So many nursery staff do a phenomenal job, often on the lowest pay without enough opportunity to develop their skills or progress in their careers. This kind of failure to invest in standards and workforce simply wouldn’t be tolerated in the schools system. 

This isn’t about turning our nurseries into classrooms. The nurseries which deliver the best early learning are still filled with games, play and fun. The difference with the best nurseries is that, with investment in staff training and skills and, crucially, the leadership of an early years teacher, they can play a decisive role in ensuring children don’t fall behind and are ready for school.

Great nurseries ensure children have the right mix of play and learning to help children hit their development milestones. Qualified early years teachers lead the training and skills development of other nursery workers, identify children who fall behind and ensure they get specific help to boost their speech and language – making sure they bring in mums and dads and specialist help if needed. 

As a country, we need to recognise that a child’s education doesn’t just start at school. If we want to achieve educational excellence for all children, we can’t wait for the classroom. We cannot accept so many children falling behind in their early years and just hope that great schools will help them catch up.

I couldn’t agree more with the Government’s challenge for our country’s schools to be the best. But my test for the Government’s pledge to transform education is whether ministers are also leading the charge for the best nurseries too. 

This article was originally published in PoliticsHome’s CentralLobby.


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