Political truce over early years

12th September 2008 at 01:00
A cross-party consensus should be possible on early years education to prevent it being used as a political football

The prospect of preventing early years education being hijacked by party politics will be raised next week with the publication of a paper written by MPs from both sides.

The attempt to find a middle way on early years was revealed this week by Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party.

Issues surrounding early years have long been used to score points by politicians. In the run up to the last general election the Tories made serious political capital by arguing for the take-up of phonics.

But speaking at a conference to mark the publication of two papers from right-of-centre think tank the Centre for Social Justice, Mr Duncan Smith suggested that this should not be repeated.

"I'm doing a joint paper with Labour MP Graham Allen on this (early years) because it is such a significant issue. It affects criminal justice, benefits, health - everyone is affected by what happens in early years. It should no longer be the preserve of one particular strand of thinking."

The joint paper from Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Allen, MP for Nottingham North, is due to be published on Tuesday.

Labour introduced free education for all three and four-year-olds and created 3,000 children's centres, which provide support for parents and children, as well as extending paid maternity leave.

These moves have helped make early years a hot political topic, but recent developments suggest cross-party consensus may be possible.

Conservative MP John Bercow was recently appointed by the Labour government to undertake a review of services for children with speech, language and communication needs. The Government has pledged Pounds 52 million to implement his recommendations - including Pounds 40m on the Every Child a Talker early years programme.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: "There is common ground between the parties in the area of special educational needs. This is possible in early years if there is a major commitment to fund early years as a universal opportunity. It would be welcome if it was taken out on that basis. But you can't do early years on the cheap, and you can't increase standards on the cheap."

A separate paper on early years from Mr Duncan Smith's think tank called for changes to the tax and benefit system to make it easier for parents to afford to stay at home until their child is three.

Dr Samantha Callan, who chaired the research group, said more attention needed to be paid to children forming loving relationships in the first three years of life.

The group concluded that current policy is targeted too much towards getting parents back to work.

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