Why the government needs to recognise that children start learning before school

Jacob reads a pop-up book at a nursery in Lancashire.
Jacob reads a pop-up book at a nursery in Lancashire.

This morning’s Queen’s Speech presented the government’s ambition to give every child the best start in life through educational excellence at school. But this plan fails to recognise that a child’s learning and development start before they reach the classroom.

If the government wants to give every child the best future, then it needs to start at the beginning, in nurseries. By the time a child starts school, so much of the crucial learning and development that will support their progress through life has already taken place.

Effects that can last a lifetime

Without the right support in their early years, children fall behind in their development and start school lacking the crucial skills they need to thrive and learn.

In 2015, six children in every reception class in England started school without the early language skills needed to succeed in the classroom.

The effects of falling behind in early development can last a lifetime. The evidence clearly shows that children who start school behind are significantly more likely to remain behind, with consequences that last into adulthood.

Delivering quality early education

A variety of factors influence a child’s early experiences. Alongside support from their parents, children’s early education in nurseries can be decisive.

Nine out of ten children aged three and four now attend nursery, which presents an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that children – particularly the poorest – get the early support they need.

A good nursery led by a qualified early years teacher delivers the best early learning through games, play and fun. But thousands of nurseries can’t afford to employ qualified early years teachers and struggle to pay for the right training for staff.

So many nursery workers are doing an extraordinary job, but as demand on nurseries increases, so too must the support they require to deliver the quality learning young children need.

A major opportunity for social mobility

The government is planning a major review of funding for early education and a new strategy for the nursery workforce. These are major opportunities to transform our nurseries into engines of social mobility, investing in the staff training and skills needed to ensure children are ready for school.

To give every child the best start in life, close the attainment gap and boost school standards, the government simply cannot focus only on schools.

Boosting nursery quality must be a central element of the government’s life chances strategy.

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