High quality and affordable early years provision is vital to give boys and girls a decent start in life. All children should be ready for school by the age of 5.
Action for Children’s ‘Fair by Five’ campaign has highlighted that one in three children in England are currently not ready for school by the age of 5. Indeed, less than half of the poorest children in England are ready for school by that age. Save the Children research shows that children who struggle with their language skills at age 5 are much less likely to meet the expected standard in English and Maths by the end of primary school. Save the Children also points out that boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school.
The previous Labour government introduced free early education and childcare for three and four year olds, created Sure Start centres, expanded school nurseries and more than doubled childcare places, and helped with the cost of childcare through tax credits and vouchers. The last Labour government also introduced the Children Act 2004, which established a Children’s Commissioner, and in 2010 the Child Poverty Act which enshrined a child poverty target in legislation. At the last General Election I stood on a manifesto which pledged to protect the entire education budget, including the early years, and to ensure that every teacher would need to gain qualified teacher status.
During the passage of the Childcare Bill, the government rejected an Opposition amendment that would have required it to monitor and report on the state of the attainment gap between young children.
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which was developed under the previous Labour government, is a statutory framework for children up to the age of 5 which sets out the areas of learning around which educational activities should be based. It sets the statutory standards all early years providers must meet. The current framework sets out seven areas of learning which should be provided as part of early years education: literacy, mathematics, understanding the world, and expressive arts and design, as well as the three ‘prime’ areas of communication and language, physical development, and personal, social and emotional development. The current government has confirmed that the EYFS profile will no longer be compulsory from September this year.
I am also concerned that financial support for childcare for most families fell in the last Parliament. The cost of childcare is now up more than £1,600 since 2010. The government’s promise of tax-free childcare remains undelivered, and early years childcare places have fallen by more than 40,000 since 2009. It is also the case that since 2010, Sure Start has withered on the vine with hundreds of centres hollowed out, providing fewer services, for shorter hours, while many others have closed. There are now 763 fewer Sure Start centres since 2010.
During the debate on Early Years Development and School-Readiness, which was held in Westminster Hall on July 12 this year, my colleague, the Shadow Education Secretary acknowledged the importance of early intervention in closing the life chances gap and pressed the government to commit the funds and resources required to improve early years provision. In May this year, during the Queen’s Speech, the government said that it would introduce new indicators for measuring life chances. Action for Children has called for the number of children reaching good levels of development by age five to be included as a measure. Save the Children are calling on the government to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery.
The government has said it will publish its Life Chances Strategy later this year and I hope it will carefully consider the proposals put forward by Action for Children and Save the Children, and bring forward policies to create a system of world-class early years provision and to narrow the gap in attainment. We need a bigger vision for early education. The government must do more to improve quality in early years education and to encourage more early years teachers into the profession. The government should commit the funds and resources required to improve children’s early years.