Like a toddler looking at the world through new eyes, the schools minister, Lord Adonis, sees a thrilling future opening before him. He is talking about the early childhood sector, and the Government's investment in the people and structures within it. "It's a new frontier of the welfare state," he says. "When I meet under-fives professionals, I sense a great excitement about the wider world in creating a whole new sector."
The Government is joining up the curriculum as well as safety standards for children from birth to five and then on to 11 to try to ensure that early-years settings focus on the social development of children, support for parents and work with primary schools towards a smooth transition, says Lord Adonis. Ministers expect to have established 3,500 children's centres for under-fives and their families, based on the Sure Start model, combining education with other services, by 2010. And the early years foundation stage guidelines for nought to fives, now out for consultation, stipulate that each is run by a graduate-level professional.
Lord Adonis is confident the focus on the early years will make a difference, and thinks worries that there will not be enough high quality staff will prove unfounded. He points to the Government's pound;250m transformation fund designed specifically to create more graduate early years professionals. It applies to the private and voluntary sector as well as to state provision, he points out. "There's a huge investment in buildings and training and the workforce," he says.
He also has confidence in the Rose report on early reading, despite criticism of its recommendation that most children should begin systematic phonics teaching by five. "It's important that children are properly prepared to engage in systematic phonic work by the age of five," he says.
Fears that unqualified nursery staff will impose too formal phonics work on toddlers will be overcome by the training early years staff will receive, he argues. "We deliberately asked Jim Rose (a former chief primary HMI) to do the report because we didn't want this to be seen as a political intervention on what should be an issue guided by good practice. Jim commands wide confidence across the profession. He's not seeen as having an axe to grind."
Lord Adonis is also confident policies are boosting quality in secondary schools. A focus on key stage 3, long the black spot of education, is putting an emphasis on English across the curriculum. Meanwhile, at key stage 4, the Government's decision to "redefine our notion of what constitutes five good GCSEs to include English and maths results has had a strong effect on schools". He also says the option for top students to take single science GCSEs will lead to better results at A-level sciences, and finally to more science graduates.