The Headteachers’ Roundtable has published 5 critical policy areas derived from chalkface experience, from those living and breathing the critical issues most schools are facing.
At times, the group has been criticised for its lack of diversity and it’s secondary perspective. This has been robustly addressed with a much broader representation of phases. So now, those of you with an eye for detail may have spotted, embedded in the manifesto, a call for enhanced funding for high quality Early Years provision.
For too long the role, importance and impact of the Early Years has been, at worse, ignored and at best, enjoyed or endured sporadic bouts of controversial interest around assessment and practice (Bold Beginnings OFSTED and Baseline Assessment DFE).
The uniqueness of this phase of education often manifests itself by ‘appearing’ separate, from the rest of the system; down the end of a school corridor behind double handled doors, or in a purpose built unit with large peeling butterflies on the window where muffled nursery rhymes escape interrupted by young voices with other plans. But Jan Dubiel (nationally and internationally recognised specialist in Early Childhood Education) cites the difference and separateness as ‘otherness’ based on the distinct neurological and developmental phase from birth to 7 years.
And because of this unique phase of neurological development, what happens in these years sticks and matters. It matters to the children and to the families but also to primary schools and secondary schools and universities and businesses and society. When we get it right the short and long term pay offs are huge. It is a highly complex phase of development that requires expert knowledge. High quality Early Years provision comes with associated costs; ensuring appropriate adult to child ratios, well qualified staff, space and place that allows exploring, creativity, food preparation and access to the outdoors, renewable resources by the sandpit load to name but a few. To have well resourced provision is to lay deep and firm foundations for future learning. These firm foundations are required for abstract mathematical thinking, geographical and scientific understanding, for phonological awareness as pre-cursor to reading and writing and for developing a sense of time for History. But it is equally important for providing developmentally appropriate experiences, where children can own childhood for now, to enable social, emotional, physical and cognitive development, not for some distant goal.
When Early Years provision is good the outcomes are exceptional. From 1997 the EPPE project undertook a longitudinal study. Three thousand children, aged 3+ from a diverse range of backgrounds, were tracked in terms of academic and social behavioural outcomes. It’s findings continue to give a clear message of the vital role high quality Early Years settings have. Pre-school experience compared to having none enhances a child’s overall development. Importantly, the benefits are most notable for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend high quality settings. Settings that prioritise the right balance between academic instruction and social interaction see better outcomes. Attending pre-school, for a longer period, and/or attending settings of higher quality predicted a greater likelihood of following an academic pathway (4+ A/AS levels) post 16 as well as a reduced likelihood of taking a lower academic route. (Nursery World report Sept 2014)
If there was significant and sustained investment in our Early Years sector (including training) and this was coupled with increased access to speech and language services in universal settings there would have huge pay offs throughout the education system and more widely for society.
Education policy has become short termist with each Secretary of State attempting to make their mark while their face is at the window. The Headteachers’ Roundtable is calling for a cross party approach that would protect long term investment in our young peoples futures. Only once this is secured might the wide reaching benefit of building firm foundations be truly realised.
Headteacher and Educational Leadership Consultant