Early years education features prominently in the manifestos of all three of the main political parties, with an emphasis on improving school readiness and closing the attainment gap. In a nutshell, Labour’s proposals for extending provision are the most extensive (and expensive), Conservatives will largely continue with current plans, and the Liberal Democrats would combine funded provision for two year olds with increased funding targeted at disadvantaged children.
The proposals reflect longstanding tensions in early years policy between the quality and quantity of provision and between universal and targeted approaches. The main emphasis across the board is on the quantity of early years education, both in terms of the number of hours per week and also the age range. While the Conservatives will continue with the planned roll out of 30 hours for 3 and 4 year olds of working parents, Labour plan to supplement this with additional subsidised provision and extending the 30 hours to all 2 year olds, and the Lib Dems plan to move towards 30 hours for all 2 to 4 year olds.
The research evidence is unequivocal that early education has value, but the likely impact of the government funding extended hours is unclear. NatCen’s Study of Early Education and Development for the Department for Education is providing evidence from the first children to be eligible for the funded places for disadvantaged 2 year olds but we don’t know whether or how a further increase in funded provision will impact on children’s development or parental working patterns.
What we do know from evidence across the OECD is that the greatest positive impacts on children’s development tend to be associated with high quality provision and targeting at disadvantaged children. The Labour and Lib Dem manifestos make explicit reference to moving towards a graduate-led early years profession which, based on some evidence, is likely to improve quality, but it is not clear whether this can keep pace with the extended provision. Recent evidence found expansion of free places to be associated with poorer quality provision.
The Liberal Democrats put the greatest emphasis on targeting with a planned tripling of the Early Years Pupil Premium to around £1,000 a year per disadvantaged child. Early qualitative evidence on the EYPP shows that providers are using the additional resources to fund speech, language and communication support which we know to be crucial for early years development, as well as outdoor play and learning. Providers observe the funding to be impacting positively on children with additional needs but these early insights needs to be backed up with quantitative evidence.
Labour is the only party to commit to a future for Sure Start Children’s Centres, the flagship Labour programme that provides holistic, neighbourhood-based support to children and families. Evidence from the Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England found that service use was associated with better maternal health and a home environment that was less chaotic and provided better learning opportunities. Children’s Centres appear to ameliorate the effects of poverty and also provide a gateway to other support.
The emphasis on early years provision is welcome, but the commitment to quantity needs to be matched by quality and ensuring access for the children most in need.
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