Politicians are full of early-years pledges as they vie to impress mothers who will be key swing voters at the next election. Susannah Kirkman reports.
Ten years ago, few pundits could have predicted that early-years education would be one of the chief battlegrounds in a general election, yet that is exactly what has happened.
Professional women aged 25-40 are reckoned to be the leading defectors to the Liberal Democrats and the two biggest parties are already honing their early-years policies to persuade them that they can deliver a better deal for their children.
The Labour government is preparing to publish a 10-year strategy for childcare. It can reasonably claim to have rescued the early-years sector from its Cinderella status.
In 20045, it is pouring around pound;10 billion into schemes such as Sure Start, the childcare element of the Family Tax Credit and meeting its pledge of 12-and-a-half hours per week of free early education and care for all three and four-year-olds.
Spending on Sure Start alone is increasing by 20 per cent a year. Ministers are also trying to base policies on sound research such as the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project whose latest report is published this week, and the national evaluation of the Sure Start programme.
They have recognised the enormous barriers to learning faced by underprivileged children. The 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review aims to create 2,500 children's centres by 2008, covering the most disadvantaged areas in England. The centres link parenting programmes, neighbourhood nurseries and support with childcare, health, education and employment.
In contrast, the Conservatives have responded by appealing to a very niche market: the 2 per cent of people who employ nannies or au pairs. They have promised to subsidise such informal childcare arrangements.
They have also pledged to increase the current pound;102 weekly maternity benefit, although have not said by how much.
But both sets of policies have the same flaw, says Sue Owen, director of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau: they are not sufficiently child-centred. "There has been very little in recent announcements about what's good for children," she said. "It's all about what's good for parents, the country or the economy."
The Social Market Foundation believes the competing claims of the last three have led to tensions within the Government's early-years policy, which are undermining its effectiveness.
The foundation's policy document, 20:20 Vision for early years: extending choice; improving the chances, outlines government departments' different priorities as they seek to influence early-years policy.
It says that, for the Department of Trade and Industry, childcare is primarily about returning women to the labour market and a better work-life balance for mothers.
The Department for Education and Skills is more concerned about quality - vital for child development and later school achievement. Meanwhile, the Treasury wants to reduce child poverty which, in the short term, may be more likely to be achieved through income transfers than investment in early-years services through the childcare tax credit.
Funding remains a challenge. The SMF and the Daycare Trust insist that the current childcare tax credit is not enough to fund good quality care.
Britain's typical weekly childcare costs around pound;130, of which parents are expected to find an average of 75 per cent, compared with an average of between 25 to 30 per cent in other EU countries. So poorer parents are further disadvantaged by being priced out of nurseries in some areas.
If it wants to improve quality, the Government also needs to switch funding away from tax credits to the service providers .
"No country has managed to develop good quality universal childcare paid for mainly by the parents," says Steven Burke, director of the Daycare Trust.
He points to reforms in New Zealand, which shared with the UK in the 1980s the dubious distinction of having the fastest growing child poverty rates in the world. The New Zealand government is now targeting extra funds at early-years education for children from disadvantaged, ethnic minority or special needs backgrounds. It is also putting cash into improving qualifications, another crucial issue for the UK.
"We have a very young, very poorly qualified early-years workforce, mostly staffed by young women who are unsure what to do with their lives," says Steven Burke.
Poorly trained staff deliver poorer services: findings from the EPPE project show that disadvantaged children particularly benefit from good pre-school education with highly trained staff. Quite simply, children at the nurseries or playgroups that had well-qualified staff, especially those with a high proportion of trained teachers, made more progress.
The evidence is that children thrive intellectually when they are working one-to-one with a skilled adult to solve a problem concept or develop a narrative, for instance.
The Green Paper Every Child Matters has proposed reforming the qualifications and career structure of early-years staff. Yet while New Zealand is aiming for a graduate early-years workforce of trained teachers by 2012, the UK government's goal is just one graduate centre manager and one qualified teacher per children's centre.
This is nowhere near ambitious enough, says the SMF. It is urging a target of 60 per cent of the early- years workforce to be qualified to graduate level and paid in line with teachers.
Provision for two-year-olds is another contentious issue. International research shows that attending a pre-school centre from the age of two improves children's intellectual development, independence, concentration and sociability. So why no free early education for two-year-olds?
"There is still a big problem of affordability and accessibility," said Vidhya Alakeson, the author of the SMF report. "The Government also doesn't want to seem too keen to push women back to work."
Ministers plan to pilot free part-time early-years places for 12,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds. But the SMF recommends that all two to four-year-olds should have free places for 48 weeks a year instead of the current 33.
Based on estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the SMF and the Daycare Trust reckon Government spending on early years needs to double - but the costs would be offset by the economic benefits of increased employment.
Just as important as funding and training, is the educational menu young children are offered.
The Daycare Trust says young children should be seen as individuals with extraordinary potential, not empty vessels into which the right ingredients must be poured. Early-years experts say that developing formal skills too early and using inappropriate assessment sets children up for failure. They warn of the danger of a mismatch between early-years education and school.
With the appointment of Lesley Staggs as the first director of the foundation stage for three to five-year olds, the Government is encouraging joined-up practice from early years to key stage 1. What many early-years advocates really want is a system like Sweden's, where confident, successful early-years practitioners have persuaded primaries to adopt a more child-centred approach.
The Government has chalked up some remarkable achievements in early-years education. But experts in the field say it could do better - and research evidence suggests extra effort and money would pay academic and social dividends.
A 20:20 Vision for early years: extending choices; improving life chances.
Social Market Foundation.The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: findings from the pre-school period. Department for Education and Skills.Towards understanding Sure Start local programmes: Summary of findings from the national evaluation. DfES.