This month, a report commissioned by The Sutton Trust called Getting the Balance Right: Quality and Quantity in Early Education and Childcare was published. Authored by Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive of Early Education and Nathan Archer, an Associate at Early Education, the report examines the tug-of-war between affordable, available and flexible childcare and high-quality early years provision offered by well-qualified, well-valued educators.
The thread running through the report is that the attainment gap is growing:
Having slowly but steadily decreased from 2007 to 2017, the gap in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile by 2019 had increased back to 2015 levels. (p.4)
The economic, social and emotional effects of living through and with the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to widen the gap even further.
The document covers everything from Early Years provision, to the early years workforce and sustainability moving forward. Here are just a few things that stood out:
What is good early years provision?
The report made the point that policy makers often see ‘more’ as meaning ‘good’. But quantity is not the same as quality, and we need to have both in balance to achieve good early years provision that works equally for all. As the authors explain, improved child development has a direct impact on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children, while enabling increased parental employment reduces poverty and therefore indirectly impacts the closing of the gap. We know that child development improves through high quality provision, and we know that parental employment increases through longer, flexible and affordable provision. This presents a constant ‘tension’. (p.7)
What impact has the 30 hours initiative had?
The report reminds us that while the 2-year-old offer and the universal entitlement were introduced to improve child development, the 30 hours entitlement was all about upping parental employment. However, only working parents end up being eligible because of the minimum salary requirement. Meaning that children from families with very low or no income are only able to access 15 hours. The authors site the Education Select Committee report Tackling disadvantage in the early years, which recommends that: ‘The Government review it’s 30 hours childcare policy to reduce the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children.’ (p.15)
Is the Early Years workforce valued?
One of the most startling points in this report was the evidence from CEEDA (2017) that ‘the childcare workforce is less qualified than both the teaching workforce and the general female workforce.’ (p.32). Yet this is a workforce that can make a huge difference to the lives of children now, and the lives and prospects of the adults of the future. We know this requires skill and knowledge, as well as many other things. We also know that this needs investment, so that managers can afford to continue to train their staff, and so that these roles are well paid and highly valued. All of which would be in line with the Early Years Ofsted Inspection Framework requirements around CPD. As the authors state in one of their recommendations, we need to ‘level up provision.’ (p.7)
How well is all this measured and monitored?
Something that appears throughout the report is how much more evidence and monitoring is needed, whether it is in relation to the impact of 30 hours entitlement on equality and quality of provision, or whether Ofsted judgements and ratings are the most appropriate way to monitor outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or how barriers to accessing funding relate to uptake of the funding that is on offer. We need more evidence to understand what is happening and why.
The report is comprehensive and timely, even though it was commissioned and written before the COVID-19 crisis. It highlights the challenges, and the necessity, of balancing the policy making seesaw for the early years sector, and it confirms the findings of Steps to Sustainability, a report commissioned by the APPG for Childcare and Early Education.
If you'd like to hear Beatrice Merrick and Nathan Archer discussing the report, look out for our podcast episode with them called 'Getting the Balance Right' available here soon.
Edited by Jules