Why the Early Years MUST be ‘Levelled Up’ Without Delay

With all the fuss about ‘Partygate’ and too many unpleasant images of our Prime Minster being shared by angry, vindictive ex-colleagues – you may have been forgiven for missing the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper led by Michael Gove. It was, of course, published accompanied by his own fanfare. Who else is going to trumpet this announcement? The response was muted especially from the education sector.

The paper identified 12 national missions which seem to be funded from allocations previously set out in the spending review rather than new funding pots. This is simply hopeless given the challenges the nation faces with rampant inflation, interest rate increases, utility and food price rises and increased recruitment and retention costs due to widespread staffing vacancies.

Naturally, Mr Gove missed the importance of the Early Years, despite his long tenure in Education. You cannot level up unless you begin in the Early Years where skyscrapers of research shows that this is the place you can make the biggest and profoundest difference. His own Government published yet another report recently called The Best Start For Life: A Vision for the 1,001 Critical Days focusing on the importance of the early years.

We know that access to high quality early education is vital to close the attainment gap and given that 56% of people believe COVID-19 has increased inequality in the UK, a focus on early years is even more important for our children’s futures.

Rachel Sylvester, Chair of the Times Education Commission admits to being shocked after finding out that nearly a third of five-year-olds are not reaching a good level of development and that disadvantaged pupils are already 4.6 months behind by the end of Reception. The deficit tracks right through to GCSE. She tells Mr Gove to level up our educational divide and focus on the first 1,000 days. She quotes Baroness Shafique, Director of the London School of Economics, who argues that the most cost-effective policies to equalise opportunities are before children get to school and therefore is challenging the notion of levelling up as being all about infrastructure as just misguided. She also quotes the oft-referenced James Heckman and his economic equation which shows an investment into Early Years can bring a return of anything between 7 and 13%.

Rachel Sylvester tells of us of her visit to Estonia where children do not go to school until they are seven, and nearly all go to a high quality, affordable, subsidised kindergartens from the age of 18-months and parents never pay more than 20% of the minimum wage (i.e. £500 a month). No doubt the Duchess of Cambridge will come back with similar messages when she visits Denmark next week.

Compare that with the subsidy shortage faced in the UK of nearly £300m per annum and a childcare funding system where the better off families are the main beneficiaries. Tax free childcare and the extension to 30-hours funded childcare for working parents have both targeted working parents, and higher earning working families that includes those earning up to £200k per annum.

We are now in the slightly odd position where free early education for two-year-olds is targeted at disadvantaged children, but they are excluded from the extended offer for three and four-year-olds. In essence, this means that children from better-off backgrounds are getting more early education than their disadvantaged peers which is the opposite of levelling up! It is why LEYF has introduced the doubling down initiative to give these very children access to 30 hours free high-quality education and care. Another small levelling step would have been to sort out the Early Years Pupil Premium so it can provide the targeted support that helps children level up.

Mr Gove promises that pay, employment and productivity will have risen in all parts of the UK and domestic public investment in research and development outside South East England will have increased by 40%. This is typical Government obfuscation because by focusing on one area instead of funding everywhere correctly we will simply see short term benefits in one place and a decline in the other areas. In this case it will be London, where poverty is greatest.

He declares that 90% of primary school children expected to achieve the expected standards in reading, writing and maths with the percentage in the worst performing areas will have increased by a third, but to do this you must begin in the Early Years as reading and writing float on a sea of talk and that begins in the home and the nursery. One day we might get equal status with schools in policy and funding decisions. Interestingly, as part of its Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential policy paper to improve social mobility through education, the Department for Education has set a target to halve, by 2028, the percentage of children leaving reception year without the communication, language and literacy skills they need to thrive.

The measure that underpins this ambition is the proportion of children achieving the expected level (or above) for both the ‘communication and language’ and ‘literacy’ early learning goals of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP). To achieve this departmental ambition, 86% of children nationally would need to achieve the expected level in both early learning goals. No local authority is currently achieving this level.

He promises 200,000 more people in England will complete high quality skills training including 80,000 in the lowest skilled parts of the country. Does this link with the recent pledge to train and empower the “start for life” workforce? Is this likely to include all those 319,000 staff working in the Early Years whose opportunities for learning has declined because Government funding has withered on the vine and now training and development is left almost entirely to the willingness and enthusiasm of individual employers to train their staff?

The gap in healthy life expectancy between the highest and lowest area will have narrowed by 2035. Again, no mention of the Marmot Review (2010) nor the continuing rise in child obesity which hugely impacts on the health and wellbeing of everyone in the community and is higher now than ever despite the 14 obesity strategies which have been published since 1992 and resulted in 698 reports.

People renting their homes will have a secure path to ownership with number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas. The number of non-decent rented properties will have fallen by 50%. Well, I hope this will include a programme for those young people on the lowest salaries who are now living with their parents forever. Many of these are Early Years staff or apprentices who cannot afford to leave home.

Everyone could benefit from a truly innovative levelling up agenda; reducing the attainment gap, increasing social mobility, integrating services and removing unnecessary hurdles. However, Mr. Gove must avoid building the policy on economic growth which allows more exploitation of natural resources and increased consumption – a wholly unsustainable approach. He must also understand that benefit does not quietly cascade through every level of society. In fact, in the wrong hands, levelling up will have the opposite effect and open up gaps between those who have and those who cannot get anywhere near having anything at all. Early Years can start to address the achievement gap right at the beginning. It therefore follows that if the government is truly committed to levelling up opportunities, it must start with the Early Years.

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