Early years education for children as young as two should be provided by schools to prevent youngsters from deprived backgrounds falling behind, Ofsted has claimed.
Ofsted’s first annual report on early years provision, published this morning, claims that thousands of youngsters are being “let down” by the poor quality of education they receive from nurseries and childminders, resulting in many having inadequate counting and language skills.
Just a third of children from low-income homes have achieved a “good” level of development by the age of five, the report argues.
In order to combat this, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw (pictured) has called for more school-based provision to teach two-year-olds the basics of literacy and numeracy.
The report highlights a significant gulf in attainment between children from disadvantaged families and their more affluent peers. This divide grows as they progress through the first years of schooling, it says.
“Too many of our poorest children are getting an unsure start because the early years system is letting them down,” Sir Michael said.
“What children facing serious disadvantage need is high quality early education from the age of two, delivered by skilled practitioners with degrees in a setting that parents can recognise and access easily. These already exist. They are called schools.”
The chief inspector also hit out at “those who dislike the words ‘education’ and ‘teaching’ when it comes to very small children”. “They fear that teaching the smallest children will inevitably lead to less play and less freedom,” he said. “Setting up play and learning as opposites is a false dichotomy. The best play is challenging.”
The report, however, also acknowledged that the quality of early years provision “has been rising in recent years”, with 78 per cent of providers judged to be good or outstanding in their most recent inspection.
The National Day Nurseries Association said its members “strongly disagree” with Ofsted’s analysis, pointing out that overall Ofsted grades in the sector were similar to those awarded to schools.
“There is a clear agenda to move very young children toward schools rather than age appropriate nursery care,” a spokeswoman added.
A Department for Education backed Ofsted’s recommendations. “We have been clear that we want to ensure more flexible, affordable and high quality provision is available for parents," he said.
“We have already made great strides in early year's provision with the introduction of the new early year's pupil premium, strengthened early-years qualifications and encouraging schools to open from 8am to 6pm.”
Ofsted’s report recommends the creation of a national agreement on “a small number of words for different types of early years provision that would be consistently used”, and calls for the pupil premium to be extended to two-year-olds.
This recommendation was supported by Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union.
“At the moment funding per pupil increases with age,” he said. “This does not reflect the reality of education, where early investment creates the most benefit; getting the foundations right makes everything else so much easier.”
However Mr Hobby cautioned against the early introduction of formal learning. “High quality early education narrows the gap. This does not necessarily mean formal 'schooling' - it also means exploring the world through play, building physical skills, learning to share and work with others, developing communications skills; and a love of reading can be built from the very start,” he added.