A government U-turn on plans to boost early years teaching in disadvantaged areas will “deny thousands of disadvantaged children vital support”, experts have told the children's minister.
In an open letter, academics and union leaders criticise a government decision not to honour a pledge in last year's Early Years Workforce Strategy to carry out a study into how to increase the number of graduates working in early years in disadvantaged areas.
Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi wrote to the House of Commons Education Committee last week to say the government was no longer going ahead with this commitment following “careful consideration”.
“Instead, as announced in the social mobility action plan, we will be investing £20 million in professional development activity focused on disadvantaged areas,” Mr Zahawi wrote.
But today’s open letter, signed by 12 prominent figures including Steven McIntosh, director of UK poverty at Save the Children, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers and professors Kathy Sylva and Edward Melhuish, of Oxford University, says the government is “going backwards” on supporting children’s early learning.
“We are extremely concerned that you have decided to drop your commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce,” the letter states.
It concludes: “If you are committed to closing the early development gap and boosting social mobility, the department should be raising its level of ambition for the quality of early years education rather than lowering it.”
The feasibility study was due to be started by March 2018.
Nadhim Zahawi, children and families minister, said: “We are determined to make sure that every child gets the best start in life – which is why, as announced in the social mobility action plan, we are investing £20 million in professional development support for early years staff in some of the most disadvantaged areas across the country.
“We also support low income families with access to high quality early years by offering 15 hours a week of free childcare to the most deprived two-year-olds, which almost 750,000 children are already benefiting from. This is on top of our 15 hours free childcare offer for all three-and-four-year-olds, with 30 hours available for working families. We also continue to offer graduate routes into the early years sector, including Early Years Initial Teacher Training.”
Read the full text of the letter below:
Strong early development is the foundation upon which life chances are built. Evidence shows children with poor levels of development at age five are more likely to struggle throughout primary and secondary school, impacting their chances of success well into adulthood.
We welcome the government’s ambition to close the early learning gap for the most disadvantaged children. However, we are extremely concerned that you have decided to drop your commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce. This will deny thousands of disadvantaged children vital support that can set them up for life.
As you know, early years practitioners work tirelessly to ensure that children have the best start to life, but they require more support from government. The evidence, and many of our organisations’ work with children and families, show that high quality early education led by specialist graduate early years teachers make a decisive difference in boosting the early development of children, particularly in literacy and for those most likely to fall behind.
Graduate early years teachers are one of the strongest indicators of high quality education for England’s preschool children. Early years teachers are adept at supporting children to learn in a nursery setting and are skilled in observing children’s progress to best support those at risk of falling behind. They also play an important role in working with other staff and crucially parents – giving them the support they need to help with their children’s learning at home.
There is a critical shortage of early years teachers across the country. The numbers starting early years initial teacher training have plummeted and many existing graduate level staff are approaching retirement age. With a wider retention crisis in the sector, the problem only stands to get worse, as we lose level 3 practitioners who have minimal support to progress onto graduate study and little reward or recognition when they do.
The commitment set out in the Early Years Workforce Strategy to conduct a feasibility study into growing the graduate workforce was an important step towards addressing this problem and understanding what works in boosting recruitment and retention in early education.
The Department is making welcome investment in identifying new approaches to supporting children’s early learning, yet we are alarmed that the Department is going backwards on what we already know works – early years provision led by early years teachers.
If you are committed to closing the early development gap and boosting social mobility, the department should be raising its level of ambition for the quality of early years education rather than lowering it.
- Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs, head of early years, Ark Academy
- Beatrice Merrick, chief executive, Early Education
- Paul Whiteman, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers
- Purnima Tanuku, chief executive, National Day Nurseries Association
- Sandra Mathers, senior research, Oxford University
- Edward Melhuish, professor of human development, Oxford University
- Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology, Oxford University
- Liz Bayram, chief executive, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years
- Steven McIntosh, director of UK poverty, Save the Children
- Sally Pearse, head of early years initial teacher training, Sheffield Hallam University, and early years lead for South Yorkshire Futures
- Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice the Union
- Elizabeth Kilbey, clinical psychologist