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Foundations firm enough to build on

It is 10 years since Gordon Brown set out plans to take the brakes off public spending. The first comprehensive spending review in the summer of 1998 laid the foundations for a steady rise in investment in education which, over the past decade, has vastly improved the quality of the learning experiences enjoyed by most children.

Nowhere have the changes been felt more than in the early years. The aim was to give children the building blocks to help even those from the poorest families to achieve well as they moved through school. The Sure Start programme, introduced in a fifth of the country in areas of highest deprivation between 1999 and 2003, was the centrepiece of a Pounds 3 billion-a- year investment aimed at bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support to help the most disadvantaged.

This is the context for Ofsted's latest review of childcare and early learning. So, what does the report tell us about Labour's strategy? First the good news: provision is improving almost everywhere, with an impressive 97 per cent of early years settings rated good or outstanding, up from 80 per cent three years ago. But the quality of service provided by breakfast and after-school clubs (another Labour innovation) is often not up to the standard of more established daycare centres, while standards of childminding have actually fallen.

Equally concerning is the evidence that families in deprived areas, despite Sure Start, still do not have access to the levels of childcare enjoyed by those in more affluent areas. It is surely unacceptable that barely a quarter of children in Hackney in east London, benefit from good childminding provision, in contrast to the three-quarters who do so in Wokingham in Berkshire.

Inspections can surely help, as Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, argues in this week's TES . Clearly, further action is required to tackle variable provision across the country, while more investment is needed to boost childminder training and provide enough qualified and experienced leaders to run school clubs effectively.

Despite some shortcomings, these are firm foundations on which to build an improving education system. Ms Gilbert is also to be commended for advising teachers to view the new early years foundation stage as a useful guide, rather than a straitjacket.

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