I have spent the past three decades working in the early years, which still feels like a poor relation in the world of education.
Early in my career, I remember asking my headteacher if I could switch from key stage 2 to the nursery. He warned me that I would be bored, because most of my time would be spent wiping noses and bottoms. In the end, he agreed.
Some parents thought I had been demoted.
During the same period, psychologists and neuroscientists have recognised the crucial importance of the first five years of life. The early years provide the foundation for our health and happiness throughout our whole lives.
Early years: missing the message
Sadly, this message doesn’t seem to have reached the wider public. When the Royal Foundation conducted the largest-ever survey of parental views last year, it spoke to thousands of parents with children aged from birth to five years old.
Fewer than one in three realised that this is the most important developmental period of their child’s life.
Babies’ brains double in size in the first year of life. Three-year-olds have brains that are twice as active as adults’. But the Royal Foundation’s survey tells us that many parents are unaware of this important information.
A quarter of parents do not recognise that what they do in the first 18 months has a large impact on their child’s future.
Beliefs matter, because people act on them. Parents who believe that their child’s development is predetermined downplay their role. They are much less likely to talk, play and read with their children.
I’ve also visited many schools where senior leaders have little knowledge about how children learn in their nursery and Reception classes. But I’ve never met a primary school leader who doesn’t know all about what happens in Year 6.
All this makes me feel a great deal of self-doubt about my work. It’s shamefully true that early years programmes, like children’s centres, have been almost entirely destroyed by years of austerity.
All the same, many billions have been spent by early years leaders like me in the past 20 years. Our key messages haven’t got through. That calls for some professional humility and reflection.
The magic bullet
Perhaps we are over-estimating the potential impact of our work in the early years? Where I work, many families live in poverty, in overcrowded housing and in neighbourhoods with high levels of crime.
Parents are keen to do everything they can for their children. But there are limits to how much advice anyone can act on, when the primary concern is day-to-day survival. Early years provision is not a magic bullet.
Instead of issuing ever-more information and guidance, let’s support our local communities and listen to them more.
We should find out how we can support parents to connect with each other, for mutual support. When it comes to parenting advice and directives, maybe it’s time to turn down the volume.
Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School