A missed opportunity to close the early learning gap

The start of 2019 brought some good news for Save the Children’s early years campaign. The Education Committee published their report on improving the life chances of children and called on the Government to do more to support young children living in poverty in England to catch-up with their wealthier peers.

This is important recognition that children in poverty are twice as likely to fall behind before even starting school and that this cannot go on. We gave evidence to the Committee and they echoed many of our recommendations, stating that the Government needs to invest in supporting parents with learning in the home and in raising the quality of childcare for children living in poverty.

It was a victory for our most disadvantaged children, but can the same be said for the Government’s response to the report?

What has the Government said?

In last week’s response to the Committee’s report, the Government restated their commitment to the early years. This is hugely positive, and their focus on supporting the youngest children through boosting early learning at home and in high-quality childcare is right. Crucially, we’re pleased to see that supporting children living in poverty to catch-up is their starting point.

But, with over 185,000 children falling behind before they start school, more work is needed to improve the quality of childcare. In their response, the Government have missed an opportunity to commit to boosting the quality of childcare and help narrow the early years development gap.

In particular, we believe the Government need to be more ambitious in the following areas:

  1. Improving childcare quality: Whilst the Government are right to point out that they are investing more than ever on increasing access to childcare (and for many parents, this is welcome), they are overlooking the need to make sure that childcare is high quality. When childcare is high-quality it can make a significant difference to children’s development, especially for the poorest children who are at greatest risk of falling behind. We urgently need to ensure that investment in the free entitlement is accompanied by investment in quality.
  2. The early years entitlement: The Education Committee found evidence that support for working parents through the 30 hours entitlement may be widening the development gap between poor children and their better off peers. Respondents to the inquiry described the implications of the entitlement as a ‘perverse…car crash’ but the Government have dismissed this evidence in their response. This is clearly concerning, and we urge the Government to monitor the impact of their policy on children living in poverty.
  3. The early years workforce: Last year the Government went back on a commitment to explore how to grow the number of graduate early years teachers. This was a real blow as we know that graduate early years teachers are key to supporting the most disadvantaged children’s development. The Committee called on the Government to reconsider its decision or provide a suitable alternative. This was an opportunity for the Government to be ambitious for children living in poverty, so we are disappointed to see that they have provided no alternative proposals.

While the Government are making progress in the early years, they cannot be complacent. Parents are essential in supporting children’s learning but with 95% of children in some form of childcare we are missing a key opportunity to support children’s development.

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