Whiff of scandal at Westminster

Article, "Revealing the ‘true’ scandal", for the December 2018 issue of EYE

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

There’s a whiff of scandal at Westminster at the moment – but I’m not talking about politicians’ behaviour, financial impropriety or Brexit machinations.

In Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions, the Commons Education Committee expressed concerns about “the over-exclusion of pupils”. Yes, that’s a scandal – but so is the lack of resources and support staff.

In his speech on social mobility at the Resolution Foundation in July, Education Secretary Damian Hinds said it was “a persistent scandal that we have children starting school and struggling to communicate, to speak in full sentences”.

As Michael Rosen pointed out in The Guardian, “No one…let alone three- and four-year-olds, speaks consistently in sentences….we repeat ourselves…hesitate…interrupt…and assist our speech with gesture, facial expression and intonation.” Picking-up on gesture and body language and starting to interpret body and social signals are part of children’s development.

We often hear politicians and commentators talk about children’s ‘school readiness’, but that ‘readiness’ must be developmentally appropriate. As anyone who has children or works with them knows, children develop at different rates. We should be ensuring that schools are ready and resourced for individual children to learn, rather than trying to force children into a standardized, centrally-appointed mould of ‘school readiness’.

It is good that Damian Hinds recognised in his speech the significant impact of high quality early years provision on closing the attainment gap. The latest findings from SEED’s research recognised that, too. It is clear from the findings that children – especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – benefit from high quality practitioners, and that childcare should address children’s broader needs, not just literacy and numeracy.

This public recognition that closing the attainment gap is not just the business of schools, but of other agencies and stakeholders, was welcome, as was his intention to bring together a coalition of stakeholders to make social mobility an ambition for society. 

Unfortunately, the Education Secretary’s recognition was not backed up with universal investment in the early years workforce, but only with previously announced, “previously committed” funding and a competitive (ie, with winners and losers) “capital bidding round” for “leading schools to come forward with projects” to increase the number of nursery school places.  It is to be hoped that, given the current recruitment and retention crisis in teaching and early years, there are enough qualified practitioners to staff additional places.

Individually and collectively with other early years organisations and prominent experts, Voice wrote to DfE Minister Nadhim Zahawi to express our concern about the decision not to proceed with the graduate feasibility study, ending the commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce. We believe this will deny thousands of disadvantaged children vital support.

Graduate early years teachers are one of the strongest indicators of high quality education for England’s pre-school children. Early Years Teachers (EYTs) are adept at supporting children to learn in a nursery setting and are skilled in observing children’s progress to best support those at risk of falling behind. They also play an important role in working with other staff and crucially parents – giving them the support they need to help with their children’s learning at home. The importance of “the home learning environment” was highlighted in Mr Hinds’s Resolution Foundation speech.

In August, Save the Children warned there were nearly 11,000 too few EYTs working in nurseries across England, with the shortage meaning many young children are at risk of falling behind.

In a recent TES interview, Naomi Eisenstadt, the former chief adviser on children’s services, commented: “The government’s efforts to close the disadvantage gap by investing in early years are pointless unless they tackle the glaring problem – a lack of graduate teachers….Unfortunately, the government has just rolled back on its intention to increase the number of graduates in early years settings.”

Considering the current recruitment and retention crisis, I also agree with her observation that: “There is a huge amount of work that has gone into things like the new Early Learning Goals, but…unless you do something about pay and conditions in the early years, nothing is going to help.”

In my letter to Mr Zahawi, I raised again the findings of our joint research with PACEY into early years graduates – an issue I highlighted in these pages in April

In his reply, the minister recognised the importance of early years education and highlighted various projects in “disadvantaged” areas and with “disadvantaged children”, but skirted round our concerns about early years graduates and teachers.

Why only invest in disadvantaged areas? Yes, that is needed, but what is needed there is also needed universally, too. Those areas will need more resources, but the picture across the country is an inconsistent patchwork.

The cycle of famine and feast of investment is taking its toll. More may be needed and at a higher level in some disadvantaged areas, but investment in our early years professionals is needed countrywide. Failure to do that over many decades is a “persistent scandal”.

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