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Early years education must be an election priority, say campaigners

An alliance of early years organisations has sent a letter to the three main party political leaders calling on them to prioritise the needs of young children in their election manifestos.

The 10 groups, including Early Education and the Pre-School Learning Alliance, say current policies for preschool children are "developmentally inappropriate".

The letter, which was co-ordinated by umbrella group the Save Childhood Movement, says: “We are deeply concerned about the Department for Education’s current consistent disregard of expert opinion and advice together with the development of early years policies that are not backed by the sector and not underpinned by global best practice and evidence.”

It has published its own Manifesto for the Early Years, which calls for play-based care until age 6 and highly-trained early years workers.

It cites the incoming baseline tests for four-year-olds as an example of the way the sector is being ignored.

The tests are to be introduced in 2016 and will be used as a way of measuring how much children have progressed during primary school. But NUT members fear that the tests will also lead to pressure to stop children learning through play and could make them feel like failures. At its annual conference over the weekend, it voted to look into a possible boycott of them. 

Wendy Ellyatt, chief executive of the Save Childhood Movement, said: “It is startling to see the language used in the recent statements from the DfE and Ofsted… where young children are still perceived as in need of instruction and testing and the greatest measure of success is whether they are made appropriately ‘ready’ for school.”

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said: “We can see what the government wants to achieve, but they are not listening to good advice from the sector about why the baseline tests are not simple or straight-forward and are potentially damaging if done badly.

“We want a sensible, measured approach in early years, particularly when funding is so short. There is no point putting money in for great headlines if you don’t achieve your objective.”

The call has also been backed by leading Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg, visiting professor at Harvard University. In a letter to the Save Childhood Movement, he says: “I share with others a growing global concern about the current increase in developmentally inappropriate policymaking together with education systems that prioritise… test-based accountability over child and family happiness and well being.

“Focus on equity gives high priority to universal early childhood programs, comprehensive health and special education services in schools, but also demands a whole-child approach to curriculum that does not put narrow academic attainment over vital social and emotional skills and personal development.”

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