For too long, the debate on social mobility has started and ended with schools – despite the evidence that the poorest children are falling behind long before they even arrive in Reception class. Thankfully, the new Education Secretary Damian Hinds has been amongst a generation of politicians arguing that action to improve the life chances of the poorest children must start in the early years.
Too often in our national debate on education, schools both get the full blame for causing, and the responsibility for solving, everything from poor literacy to a lack of access to university for the poorest children. But one in five children arrive for their first day in Reception class having already fallen behind. This rises to one in three of the poorest children who are, on average, a shocking fifteen months behind their classmates by the age of five. Primary school teachers are left trying to teach classes where twenty percent of the children struggle with basic language, communication and social skills which are the foundation of literacy, numeracy and classroom learning.
Great teaching can help close the gap and enable children from disadvantaged background to shine. But many children who start behind struggle to ever catch up. The evidence shows that children who struggle at age five are far less likely to do well in their SATs at age 11, do well in secondary school or succeed in the jobs market later.
We must stop this gap opening up in the first place and that means taking pre-school action to both better support parents with early learning at home and to boost the quality of the nations’ nurseries, which can play a critical role in ensuring children are ‘school ready’.
Damian Hinds arrives at the Department of Education with a reputation for being a passionate advocate for social mobility, and particularly for action in the early years. In his first term as an MP he was a leading member of a cross-party group of MPs which made clear that facing up to the challenge of social mobility demands a focus on the early years and he has written passionately about the critical importance of closing the gap in the poorest children’s school readiness.
We have seen some progress in government policy recognising this, including the outgoing Education Secretary, Justine Greening’s, recent Social Mobility Action Plan which promised to address the ‘word gap’ in vocabulary amongst disadvantaged toddlers and recognised the vital importance of the home learning environment, parental engagement in early learning and the quality of early years services.
We now need to see action to back this up and top of the in-trays for the new Secretary of State and the new Childcare Minister should be urgent measures to address the shortage of skilled nurseries teachers. The number of people training to be early years teachers is falling – despite the clear evidence on their critical role in supporting struggling children and helping their parents with the best approaches to early learning.
Damian Hinds has a huge opportunity to put early learning at the heart of the Government’s promise to tackle social mobility – ensuring that not only do families have access to great schools, but also the best nurseries and support with early learning at home.