“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” Nelson Mandela
In recent years we have developed a far better understanding of the importance of children’s early experience on their development and future wellbeing. We should be concerned, then, that nationally only 52% of five year old children starting school have reached a “good level of development” and, in Brighton & Hove we might be particularly concerned that this figure drops to 45%. This is worse than the national average and much worse than England’s best local authorities where 69% of five year olds have reached a “good level of development”.
More worryingly, although there is a consensus that education should help all children achieve, five year olds from poor families are particularly disadvantaged in Brighton and Hove with only just over a quarter reaching a good level of development (compared to the 36% national average). And the tragedy is that this attainment gap is perpetuated throughout the education system from early years to higher education – education is failing to equalise life chances, failing the poorest children.
Elizabeth Truss MP, when still Childcare Minister, said: “I say to nurseries and child minders whether you are in the state or private or voluntary sector, in a school or in a chain, in an agency or independent – what matters is that you provide safe and high quality childcare that meets the needs of all children – and doesn’t allow any to fall behind”. So what’s going on?
The current government has brought in a raft of new policies affecting care and education in the early years both in the 0-5 preschool phase and the early years of primary education. The focus has been on ‘raising standards’ by emphasising the need to ensure that young children are ‘school ready’, more formal teaching and the increased use of testing to ensure that standards are being met. Child care and early years professionals and experts have been critical of these changes.
But there has been very little consultation with parents, practitioners or early years experts. A survey by the Pre-School Learning Alliance  revealed that most childcare professionals do not support planned changes, including plans for more schools to take two-year-olds, implementation of childminder agencies, and introducing testing at the start of reception.
The survey, one of the most representative early years surveys of the past five years found that; 85% oppose plans to remove staff ratio and qualification requirements for out-of-hours care, 86% of childminders do not intend to join a childminder agency; 81% of all practitioners expect agencies to lead to an increase in childcare fees; and 85% are opposed to plans not to require all agency-registered childminders to be inspected by Ofsted. In addition, parents and practitioners are increasingly concerned at the pressure that is being placed on children and the long term impact on children’s emotional health and, more generally, the erosion of childhood.
Few would oppose government plans to make more early years places available but there are concerns about quality and the appropriateness of settings for very young children. Childhood specialists have warned that funding cuts leading to the closure or paring back of hundreds of children’s centres and high quality council run nurseries for two and three year olds risks causing long term damage. So far Brighton and Hove has maintained a commitment to Children’s Centres but the funding is not protected. This has meant drastic cut-backs in many Local Authorities (East Sussex has been hit particularly hard). It also means that there is no equality of access to these services across the country – it all depends on your postcode. In Brighton and Hove we appear to have a council that understands the importance of early years so services have not been hit as hard as in other areas. But things can change as council priorities change.
Putting children first or letting them down?
In Brighton & Hove there will be an opportunity to debate these issues, and more, at a meeting hosted by the Campaign for Education in Brighton & Hove on the 16th October. This meeting will bring early years practitioners, parents and early years experts together to develop a vision for early years care and education in our city.