For years, our governments have neglected fundamental educational issues – such as funding and teacher recruitment – in favour of what are, at best, secondary issues, and at worst mere ideological passions.
Early years education has not been spared such treatment. “There seems to be little strategic direction to government policy on early years,” concluded the House of Commons Education Select Committee in February – and this is, in truth, an understatement.
The Department for Education and Ofsted have devoted much of their energy to promoting sweeping and contentious changes to the early years curriculum, while studiously failing to address what is for many providers an existential crisis of funding.
Early years: damaging funding cuts
Nowhere is this tension clearer than in the maintained nursery sector. While ministers and inspectors talk as if one of the main factors to prevent the narrowing of the attainment gap is the reluctance of the sector to adopt a more formalised curriculum, they overlook far more potent problems: the effect of benefit cuts, the rise in child poverty, and the decision to drain away resources from forms of provision that could work against such a programme of social destruction.
The achievements of maintained nursery schools are well-known. They demonstrate the difference that specialist, integrated provision can make. Concentrated in the poorest areas of England, they give priority in their admissions to disadvantaged children and children with special educational needs and disabilities. And they have the expertise and skills to support them successfully.
As research quoted by Early Education points out, in 2018 maintained nurseries had the highest percentage of children who were at risk of developing special educational needs. Yet many children identified as “at risk” at age 3 had caught up with their typically developing peers by the age of 5.
In this catch-up process – so thrilling for parents and for early years staff – there was a significant association between pre-school quality (highest in maintained nurseries) and children leaving the “at risk” category.
In a country where education policy was based on reason, evidence and a commitment to social justice, achievements like these would be studied, celebrated and copied.
Nurseries facing uncertainty
But, as England enters its 10th year of austerity, the opposite is happening. Twelve nurseries have closed since 2016. The rest are funded on the basis of transitional arrangements, which will expire in 2019-20. These nurseries will lose nearly a third of their funding in 2020 if supplementary funding is not continued.
Uncertainty hangs over the whole sector. In July, three in 10 told Early Education that they were unsure about their immediate future,
Chancellor Sajid Javid and education secretary Gavin Williamson have announced what they claim are “step-change” increases in educational spending. But they have said nothing about maintained nurseries, other than a promise, extracted by a question from Lucy Powell, to keep the issue of funding under review.
This isn’t good enough. Guaranteeing to fund maintained nursery schools at 2016-17 levels should be among the top items on Javid’s list. Its absence is a scandal.
In the face of this neglect, the National Education Union is supporting the School Cuts petition on nursery funding. We are working with Early Education and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception classes to send a pack of campaign materials to every nursery school.
Autumn will be a turbulent time for politics in Britain. But, whatever happens, we will make sure that the needs of the youngest, most vulnerable sections of our population are not forgotten.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union