Save the Children: The domino effect of educational underachievement is something we ignore at our peril

Save the Children argues that the Government’s “focus and scarce funds would achieve more if directed towards early years.”

Children from poor backgrounds and boys are the most likely to struggle. Photo credit: Woodleywonderworks

Two months in, and Theresa May has kicked off her social reform agenda by opening the door to more grammar schools. With the prospect of selection at 11 firmly back on the agenda, so too is talk of the achievement gap between poorer children and their better-off peers. 

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The fact is that your attainment at 11 has a lot to do with your attainment at age five. Children who start school behind in language and communication skills are four times as likely to fail in reading tests at age 11. Children from poor backgrounds and boys are the most likely to struggle as Mrs May herself pointed out, if you overlay ‘poor’ with ‘white’ and ‘male’, your prospects can look bleak whatever school you go to.

If we truly want to boost social mobility, we need to ensure that major interventions are put in place to boost the life chances of a greater number of children from low-income families. We would argue that government’s focus and scarce funds would achieve more if directed towards the early years, with a laser-like spotlight on high-quality pre-school childcare in particular.

Children learn throughout their lives and into adulthood, but the early years are a golden opportunity when the foundations for later learning are laid. The brain of a two-year-old is twice as active as that of an adult’s – the neural pathways and networks that are built during this crucial period, underpin all later development.

Of course, what schools do is vital. Many primary schools are doing a heroic job, often against the odds. But this domino effect of underachievement – from poor language skills at school entry, to poor reading and comprehension at the end of primary, to struggling to get five GCSEs at age 16 – is something we ignore at our peril.

Successive governments have talked the talk on quality childcare and progress has been made. But in truth most politicians probably see childcare as a means to support parental employment first and child development, second. With over 90 per cent of three and four year olds attending some form of formal childcare, the potential of high-quality early education system is vast.

Instinctively, we know when looking at school performance, that it is the quality of teaching that matters most. Precisely the same is true of the early years – but with playmats instead of classrooms. Early Years Teachers, supported by a strong early years workforce can make an enormous difference to a child’s early speech and language development. They understand how children develop and know how to spot the children who might need a little extra support to prevent them from falling behind: all through the power of well-designed play.

None of this is to undermine the role of parents which, of course, is vital. The best Early Years Teachers are trained to work with parents and offer them guidance on how to support their children’s learning at home too.

This week, a government consultation on how to fund the childcare system in England closed. This may sound like a dull bureaucratic Whitehall exercise, but it is in fact highly significant. It is significant because the outcome of this review will reveal the extent to which the new government intends to prioritise early education in this country – and, by consequence, their seriousness in taking on the challenge of wider educational disadvantage. It should be the moment to seize that opportunity and properly recognise the role of a high-quality childcare system – with parental employment and child development as dual priorities.

Yet the proposals as they stand make no provision to incentivise providers with workforce training or professional development. In fact, they would remove the limited provision for ‘quality’ that exists under the current system.

While this has been by no means perfect, removing it with no replacement is a move in the wrong direction. The wider set of proposals could also have a significant impact on the few nursery school and pre-school classes which already employ well-qualified staff and are generally among the best quality childcare in the system today. This would be a major blow for the disadvantaged communities of children who rely on quality provision the most and that these types of settings are most likely to serve.

We are all united in creating a world class education system, where every child’s schooling provides them with the skills they need to compete in a modern world. With close to universal attendance of three and four-year-olds in childcare we must consider the role of a world-class pre-school education in that vision – because it won’t succeed without it. 

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