Education Apr 27 2010

Time to get real about the early years

Where are the women in this election, or the debates about children, families, work life balance? The media fascination with ‘free schools’ and the focus on idividual parents who want to start them, has crowded out too many other important issues that matter to all parents.

Most depressing has been the almost complete lack of attention to investment in the early years – widely acknowledged by everyone from Gordon Brown to former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith (whose Centre for Social Justice has been influential in Tory thinking) as being crucial to child’s chances of flourishing later in life.

Polly Toynbee’s article in the Guardian today ‘Wake up parents and shout about toddler top-up fees’ will hopefully encourage more scrutiny of the Labour record and what might change in the future.

Toynbee’s article flags up the alarm we should all feel at Tory Childrens’ spokesman Michael Gove’s reluctance to rule out top-up fees for what is currently a free nursery entitlement for all 3 and 4 year olds.

The Conservative manifesto is equally vague. It talks about  taking Sure Start back to its ‘original intention’, focussing it on the ‘ neediest families’ and introducing ‘payment by results’.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto doesn’t mention Sure Start at all but promises to protect existing childcare arrangements with a promise to extend free childcare to 20 hours a week from 18 months for every child, when the nation can afford it.

In fact the early Sure Start principle was that that centres should be open to all or, as Toynbee says, ‘a great universal hub where families of every class and kind meet and mix to get any help they need’. Families move in and out of risky situations and services that are only for the poorest, most troubled families quickly become stigmatised.

Many Sure Start centres are now also childcare hubs for their local communities, so changes in the funding arrangements could lead to working parents, who rely on high quality local daycare centres,  finding them selves out of pocket or without a service at all.

Labour is committed to increased spending on frontline early years services. The 3,500 Sure Start Centres will be protected; all 3 and 4 year olds will be entitled to 15 hours a week of flexible, free nursery education; that will be extended to all 2 year olds, starting with the most disadvantaged.

Investment in the early years is one of the most effective ways to iron out inequalities. Countless studies have now pointed to the speed with which bright children from poorer homes are leapfrogged by their better off peers when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy, before they even start primary school.

Coincidentally the Institute for Fiscal Studies also produced a report this week ‘Radical or just radically vague?’ which probes the education policies of all the main parties and notes the expansion of free nursery places and the introduction of Sure Start as being one of the achievements of the Labour government .

‘The education system today is broader in scope and richer in resources than it was when Labour came to power. We have also seen a clear shift in funding priorities towards younger children, with the UK becoming one of the developed world’s biggest spenders on early years programmes,’ it observes.

The IFS also claims that there is a ‘consensus’ among all the three on the importance of early years. That may be true but the devil is in the detail. Lets hope parents get the chance to examine that before polling day.

2 Responses to “Time to get real about the early years”

  1. BobVant says:

    3rd attempt to leave this post! What am I doing wrong?

    Please look at website of Holme Valley labour Party – click on survey.

    This gives an incontrovertible indictment of the Tory record. I reckon there’s loads of useful evidence there, but i can’t get it through to anyone Up There for them to use it if they can see any use in it.

    Will you pass it on, please? I hate to think that it might be useful but doesn’t get used to really expose the Tories.

    Bob Vant

  2. Politique says:

    Work life balance, a flexible approach to individualise public services, a precursor to Labour’s attempts to tailor the needs of the individual or the individuals needs. Browns Rawlsiam approach to rights, opportunities and distributive welfare needs to those who he deems are the most disadvantaged in society creates an uneven playing field with those parents who are unable to take advantage of Flexible Working Regulation and Part Time Working. It is of course a right to be considered for FWR or worklife balance but not a right to receive it. The goalposts have changed towards families whu have children under 16 not 6. The employer employs the individual in good faith and arguably they do not employ their family. New Labours experiment in creating a ‘Whats in it for me generation’ leaves many workers who play by the rules out in the cold. Married couples often make way by sacrificing their working schedule in order to accomodate some parents who use their child as a tool for time off

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