Big steps towards big futures: improving children’s life chances in England

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When Theresa May took office in July last year, she set out a big ambition to fight injustice and make Britain ‘a country that works for everyone’.

A few months later, when announcing plans to lift the ban on grammar schools she talked of her vision for a country in which “advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like”.

Key to this ambition was a commitment to improve educational opportunities for children who are most likely to be struggle – usually those from poorer homes.

A key time for growth and development

At Save the Children, we’ve long argued that in order to achieve this ambition, the government should focus on the early years.

Young children absorb vast amounts of information from the world around them which shapes the way their brains grow and develop and forms the scaffolding on which all later learning is built.

By the time they’re five, most children will have mastered the basics in certain skills such as language and communication, but for some others – particularly the poorest, boys, and those growing up in particular areas of the country – even the basics remain elusive.

Investment in the early years is essential

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Our research has shown that one in three children in England began primary school without reaching a good level of early development, and this increases to half of all disadvantaged children.

Falling behind at this early stage can have a huge impact on a child’s life. We know that children who start behind are much more likely to stay behind throughout their school careers and into adulthood.

Investing in getting it right in the early years is therefore essential.

Government seems to have listened

At Save the Children we have been making the case for investment in early years workforce to help support children’s early development for some time. And the government seems to have been listening.

Last year they reversed plans which would have removed dedicated local authority funding to support high quality childcare provision.

This came after we highlighted the detrimental impact removing this funding would have on local authorities’ ability to employ highly skilled early years staff, and ultimately on children’s life chances.

Then, in a pivotal moment last week, the government published its Early Years Workforce Strategy. This included an ambition to grow the number of Early Years Teachers and to target the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

Helping the most disadvantaged children

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A highly skilled workforce led by Early Years Teachers makes a proven difference for a child’s early development. Children in England whose nursery has an early years teacher are almost 10% more likely to meet the expected standards when they reach five.

The measures announced in this strategy could have a major impact on the lives of the 35,000 children in disadvantaged areas who, right now, have no access to a graduate teacher.

It is a clear sign that the government has listened to the evidence that shows the incredible impact an Early Years Teacher can have on children struggling with basic skills and is taking children’s life chances seriously.

A fantastic step but there’s more to do

But while this is a fantastic step in the right direction, this isn’t yet ‘mission accomplished’.

Next will be the detailed work to understand if and how an Early Years Teacher in every nursery in the most disadvantaged areas can be achieved.

We know that there is no quick fix. With the extension of the entitlement for free nursery hours from 15 hours to 30 hours a week for all three- and four- year-olds set to roll out across the country from September, the childcare sector is already facing a number of challenges.

But the ambition and direction of travel should be applauded.

Now, the government must build upon this promising start and invest the resource necessary to ensure these ambitions for children become a reality.

 

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