Raising quality in the early years

Through 2016, the Family and Childcare Trust, supported by Community Playthings, has published a series of papers looking at quality in the early years. We know that it is the quality of provision that makes the biggest difference in outcomes for children, but that too many children are missing out on high quality early education that will boost their outcomes. Early in the year we looked at the relationship between staff wages and Ofsted grades in early years settings and found that there is a significant pay premium for quality. Our second paper, Driving high quality childcare: the role of local authorities, looked at the importance of the support that local authorities provide to early years settings, which is coming under increasing pressure as local government funding reductions bite.

The final paper in the series, Putting quality at the heart of the early years, seeks to identify some less prominent but important ways of leveraging higher quality in the early years. We identified seven pragmatic opportunities to raise quality and support good child outcomes.

One: Supporting early years practitioners

Attention has rightly been given to the challenge of increasing the number of qualified graduates working in the early years. However, the needs of non-graduate early years practitioners who spend the most time with children have often been overlooked. We set out the case for a professional development framework, clearer progression pathways and stronger professional representation to support non-graduate early years practitioners to meet rising expectations.

Two: Regulation and quality improvement

There is a concern that the trend of rising Ofsted grades for early years settings has not been matched by a significant narrowing of the gap in developmental outcomes between the most and least disadvantaged children. To address this issue, we propose that Ofsted should collect a richer range of metrics in the inspection process to provide settings with better information about changes they can make to raise quality.

Three: Monitoring children’s development

Efforts to roll out an integrated health and development check for all children at age two have stalled and the future of the statutory EYFS profile assessment at age five has been put at risk by the (now delayed) introduction of a school-focused baseline assessment in reception class. The integrated review and the EYFS profile assessment are valuable tools which help monitor children’s development in the early years and provide the evidence needed to design high quality early years services: we suggest that the Government should continue to support and promote both.

Four: Integrated early years provision

Almost all children attend free early education but only slightly more than half of families are ever likely to enter a children’s centre. To ensure that support reaches the families who need it most, early years settings and children’s centres must work closely together. For example, statutory guidance could be revised to promote better links between early years settings and children’s centres to support outreach, target services effectively.

Five: Special educational needs and disabilities

Children with SEND tend to fall behind before they reach school, in part because the quality of early years support for children with additional needs is variable. To stop SEND expertise being overlooked in the early years, the Department for Education should invest in SEND expertise and clarify the roles of specialist SEND practitioners.

Six: Links between early years settings and families

One of the key differences between children from disadvantaged families who do well in school and those who do less well is a positive parental attitude to home learning. We suggest that the Department for Education should convene an expert working group to update best practice guidance for practitioners and review opportunities to promote home learning in the EYFS framework.

Seven: Enabling environments

The physical environment is an important influence on learning and development in early years settings but has been overlooked in policy making. The challenge of rising childhood obesity also means that it is increasingly important that settings help to promote physical activity. To address gaps in evidence and ensure settings are fit for purpose, the Government should commission an audit of the physical environment in early years settings and develop a strategy to shape the future early years estate.

Attitudes to quality in the early years reflect the kind of environment we choose to create for families with young children. As a leading charity working on these issues, Family and Childcare Trust feel passionately about the role of quality and the influence it can have on outcomes for children, particularly the most disadvantaged.

As pressures on public spending have increased in recent years, quality risks slipping down the agenda when funding decisions are made. When expectations drop, it is the preschool children who are most likely to fall behind who lose out. Getting back on the right track is not impossible, and the Family and Childcare Trust will continue to call for positive action from local and national policy makers.