You would be hard-pushed to find anyone who would argue that the first five years are anything other than a critical time in a child’s life.
It is widely accepted that the early interactions and experiences an infant has have a lasting effect. This is why the time children spend in our early years settings is so important.
Report after report has pointed to the positive long-term impact that high-quality early years provision can have on children, especially when it comes to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
The sector is an incredibly complex one with a range of providers, including childminders, PVIs, nurseries and nursery classes in schools. All have a critical role to play, and this diversity allows parents to choose the setting that best fits their child’s needs.
To paraphrase the famous quote, what unites the sector should be greater than that which divides it.
Whilst there are obvious differences between settings, there are equally some commonalities. All can only offer high-quality care and provision if they are properly funded, have highly skilled practitioners and if they are afforded the recognition they deserve.
Those who work in early years have every reason to be proud.
As the 2016 Ofsted annual report noted, “the proportion of good and outstanding nurseries, pre-schools and childminders is now at 91 per cent”. Maintained nurseries fair even better with 99 per cent judged "good" or "better" and 60 per cent "outstanding".
A government genuinely interested in social mobility would be well advised to focus a significant amount of its resources building upon this success story. It is simply madness that many of these maintained nurseries are worrying about their future sustainability because of a lack of government funding.
'Let's build on our success'
Early years practitioners themselves really are the unsung heroes of our education system. I have never failed to be struck by the passion that those working with our youngest children have for their work.
They are deeply knowledgeable about early child development, and they hold the principles of effective early years practice close to their heart. A highly skilled and well qualified early years workforce is essential to the continued success of the sector.
As the 2016 Save the Children report identified, “attending a childcare setting with highly qualified staff has a substantial and positive impact on a child’s early development”.
The report suggested that the presence of trained teachers in the early years made a significant difference, particularly for those children growing up in poverty.
We need more qualified teachers working in early years and, crucially, the settings need the funding to be able to employ them.
These early years teachers should have the same status and recognition as any other teacher. Currently, those with the specific early years teacher qualification (introduced in 2013) do not hold qualified teacher status (QTS).
In a school context, this means that there is a danger that they may be seen as less qualified than other teachers – how can this be right?
Treating early years teachers as second-class citizens in this way sends a message that their role is somehow less important or complex. Anyone who has ever spent time working in early years knows that nothing could be further from the truth.
Importantly, QTS would also afford these teachers the same rights and protections as their colleagues.
Of course, this is not just about teachers; professionals who have qualifications below graduate level play an important role across the sector and they also deserve high-quality training and support.
Whilst qualifications alone don’t guarantee excellent practice, it is fair to say that the higher the quality of the workforce overall, the better the deal children are likely to get.
Serious consideration should also be given to increasing the early years pupil premium so that there is at least parity with the primary equivalent.
Early intervention is key when it comes to tackling the disadvantage gap, so it is illogical that the early years allocation is only a fraction of the amount available for older children.
Anyone who works with children knows that the longer the gap is allowed to exist and widen, the harder it is to tackle.
It’s about time we gave the early years and those who work within it the status, funding and tools they deserve.
There will be those who say this is all too expensive, but rather than a cost to bear, we need to start thinking of it as an investment in the future.
James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen
For more columns by James, visit his back catalogue
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