Ofsted's blog: Lee Owston, Ofsted’s new specialist adviser for early years, on the unknown, disadvantaged children

14th March 2017 at 09:04

It's our early years education that makes the difference. The learning, development and care that we receive at that stage helps shape our adult life. So getting the first five years right should be a top priority.

For many children a successful start is by no means guaranteed. Inequality starts early. It permeates all aspects of the lives of children born into our most disadvantaged families. Even before they start school the odds are stacked against them. Statistically there's a stark difference between disadvantaged children and their better-off counterparts.

Last year we published Helping disadvantaged young children: how good are local authorities and early years providers. That survey showed that in 2015 around a third of all children didn’t have the essential skills needed to successfully start school. And for disadvantaged children the figure was far worse. Just over half secured the essential knowledge, skills and understanding expected for their age.

We found around a quarter of disadvantaged children couldn’t communicate effectively. They weren't able to control their own feelings and impulses or make sense of the world around them. They didn't possesses the necessary skills to be ready to learn. Although the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has narrowed slightly in recent years, it remains unacceptably wide.

Hindering progress – what we find

Addressing inequalities is high on the political agenda. Yet a considerable number of local authorities lack the ambition to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children and families. This is down to weak leadership and poor oversight. There’s also a reluctance to find better ways of working.

At its worst we found professional distrust. Teams are reluctant to share vital information about a child or family with others. In these local authorities, different departments targeted different children and families. They duplicated their assessments and didn’t know whether a child and their family were disadvantaged or not.

Good performing local authorities and staff tackled the issues of disadvantage head on. They adopted a coherent, service-wide strategy. This was shared and understood across health, education and children’s social care.

Unknown and invisible

Early identification of those in need is vital. But too many fly under the radar; they’re simply unknown to local authority services.

Health visitors play a crucial role in identifying those children and parents needing extra support. But inspectors found the information and guidance they shared was far from universal.

Our survey found that around one quarter of children didn’t receive a health check at the age of two. And any health and development checks weren't always shared with schools and settings.

Joint working brings results

We found local hubs of support where council departments, pre-school providers, schools and families work together. Here the specific needs of deprived communities are being addressed. This was often due to committed public servants and respected headteachers who are trusted by the families they work with.

Greater funding is often cited as an answer. Yet the most successful local authorities, schools and settings make the absolute most of what’s currently available. They ensure that two-year-olds are receiving continuous access to early education until they start school.

Effective leaders adapt national systems to make it easier for parents to access entitlements. They access free, funded education for two-year-olds. At the ages of three and four they use the fifteen hour entitlement and the early years’ pupil premium. And at age five, in the Reception year, they access the school pupil premium. This ensures three, strong years in preparation for school.

Across all local authorities it’s a contrasting and varied picture of success. It's a sad reality that children in their early years today may be the first to fare less well than those from previous generations.