As sports days take place across our schools, thinking about children’s school careers as a race can be enlightening. Sadly, a growing number of disadvantaged pupils are starting theirs in the changing rooms while their peers are on the starting line.
In that context, while some of the recommendations in the Times Education Commission final report published last week might be controversial, we at Ark Start particularly welcome the suggestions about how to improve the quality of and access to early years provision. Often something of a Cinderella sector, its mention as a key way to ‘level up’ is encouraging.
After all, this is the starting line, and creating high-quality provision for our youngest learners in the most deprived communities is the most vital work we can be doing to address educational inequality.
Impact on schools
Schools know this, but the wider public may not realise how early the disadvantage gap opens up. Eighty per cent of a child’s brain development has occurred by the time they reach age three. By this point, disadvantaged children are on average 18 months behind their more privileged peers. In essence, they are playing catch-up from day one.
Yet it is extremely hard to run nursery provision sustainably within schools and not-for-profit settings. Children with working parents can access 30 free hours. Frustratingly, however, schools are unable to get the children who could potentially benefit most in through the door and doing full days. That’s why so many who serve areas where fewer families can afford to pay top-up costs for basics have had to close.
Arguably, unfairness is baked into the system from the outset. It makes little sense, for example, that pupil premium for early years children is less than the amount paid in reception. The additional premium only ends up being spent on attempts to close gaps exacerbated by children missing out on more time spent in nursery developing vital skills.
And this is before we factor in other concerning phenomena. The cost of living crisis is biting, nurseries are closing (300 shut their doors between July 2020 and July 2021) and for the first time in decades women are leaving the workplace as families struggle to pay for childcare. Meanwhile, the long tail of Covid is still with us; the September 22 cohort have had over half their short lives impacted by the pandemic, which means these children will potentially struggle even more at transition.
What should change
We’re trying to show that high-quality provision in disadvantaged communities can transform educational opportunities. Our Ark Start programme aims to ensure all our children arrive at school ready to thrive and is based on the following key principles:
- A child-centred, playful and knowledge-rich curriculum, structured around storytelling. By encouraging children to tell their own stories and listening to others’, we aim to develop their creativity, their own voice and their listening skills.
- Access to activities explicitly designed to build their understanding of the world and provide them with a rich, stimulating and joyful early education. This might include offsite visits, external guests, forest school and activities such as baking or hatching chicks.
- Staff trained specifically in techniques for improving children’s language and vocabulary throughout the day.
- Working in close partnership with parents. We offer a programme of structured events and programmes including a peer-parenting programme, stay-and-play sessions and a parent empowerment programme in partnership with Citizens UK.
We are fortunate to have support to run a limited pilot programme. Our aim is to show that with sufficient funding schools and not-for-profit providers could close the disadvantage gaps before they opened.
Provision like this costs, but early years education is too important to be dismissed or funded as ‘childcare’. We know that for every pound spent here, 13 are saved in later interventions.
So schools don’t need to wait for the Times Education Commission recommendations or some version of them to be enacted. We all want a fairer sports day, and working with and in the early years is our best hope of getting all our children on the starting line.