A systematic review of the evidence by Sara Bonetti and Kristen Brown (2018) found that high quality early years education is underpinned by a number of ‘structural factors’.
These factors include well-qualified staff, with a formal degree and some specialised training in early childhood education/development; a clear strategy for staff continuous professional development (CPD); low staff/child ratios; and small class sizes for the entire school day.
Currently, early years education falls a long way short of these objectives. For instance, staff/child ratios in Reception year classes are currently much higher than those recommended to maximise the impact on children’s outcomes.
Furthermore, while smaller class sizes are associated with improved children’s outcomes, greater educational effectiveness and other benefits, in Reception year, 30 pupils per class in England is the norm, despite international evidence showing that the maximum average size of 20 children per class is best practice for this age group.
The Labour governments of 1997-2010 introduced Sure Start centres across England. These are nursery and early years settings where parents and children could access free care, learning and advice. Sure Start was regarded as one of Labour’s major successes.
By August 2009, there were more than 3,362 Sure Start centres. However by 2015, under the Coalition government, this number had fallen to 2,677. As of June 2017, official figures indicated that the number of main Sure Start centres had reduced to 2,443 under the Conservative Government.
Under both Coalition and Conservative governments, from 2015 onwards, there were substantial cuts in funding for Sure Start. Spending in 2015/16 was 43% lower than 2010/11 in cash terms or 47% less in real terms.
Commenting on these trends, the Pre-School Learning Alliance stated: “It is very worrying to see that such a significant number of children's centres across the country are continuing to close. Children's centres are a vital source of advice and practical support for families – especially those more disadvantaged families – and so for so many to be disappearing at a time when there is so much government rhetoric on 'closing the gap' and improving children's life chances seems completely contradictory. Worse still, a growing number of those children's centres that remain open are unable to offer much more than a skeleton service due to lack of adequate funding, meaning that even more vulnerable families are finding it difficult to access the support they need. This is clearly not a sustainable situation and so we urge the government to set out its – now long overdue – strategy for securing the future of children's centres as a matter of priority.”
These problems were confirmed by research commissioned by the Sutton Trust from Oxford University Department of Education. According to the research report, “services are now ‘hollowed out’ – much more thinly spread, often no longer ‘in pram-pushing distance’. The focus of centres has changed to referred families with high need, and provision has diversified as national direction has weakened, leading to a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.”
One of the researchers, Professor Kathy Sylva, reported that a survey of local authorities had found, “wide variation in level of closures and in numbers of services on offer”. This was all the more alarming, said Professor Sylva, “in light of the government’s own evaluation of Sure Start showing many beneficial effects of children’s centre use on families.”
The offer of ‘30-hours of free childcare’ for working families was a key Conservative manifesto pledge in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The government estimates that 390,000 children are eligible for the 30-hour offer, which is limited to working parents (those earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week at minimum wage and no more than £100,000 each).
However, early years providers and representative organisations have raised concerns about the viability and sustainability of the offer given current levels of funding available to providers of early education and childcare.
In April 2017 the Government introduced the new Early Years National Funding Formula in England. Under the new formula, 20% of local authorities in England saw a decrease in funding rates compared to 2016/17. The Government also confirmed that the current level of early years funding for councils would be frozen until 2020, with no formal annual review.
The effect of the formula, in the context of budget restrictions, is to undermine the 30 hours a week offer. A 2018 survey by Nursery World found that just 35 per cent of providers were delivering 30 hours places ‘completely free’ to all parents; 36 per cent were delivering free places to some parents, but not all; and 28 per cent were delivering no fully free places.
Maintained nursery schools are local authority run schools for two, three and four-year-olds. Maintained nursery schools have to meet higher standards than private and voluntary sector (PVI) providers They are required to employ a head teacher, qualified teachers, a SENCO and staff with level 3 qualifications, while PVIs need employ only one staff member with a level 3 qualification, and half of their remaining staff at level 2. More highly qualified staff are a good thing but of course means costs are higher.
The Government is not willing to say that these costs will be covered. With no guarantee on funding beyond 2020, maintained nursery schools have been unable to plan and budget for the future. Many have simply closed.
Early Education (the British Association for Early Childhood Education) has called on the Government “to make an in principle commitment by autumn 2018 to fund maintained nursery schools on the same basis as all other school”.
The NEU believes that early years education should be about investing in quality provision, for example by securing low staff to child ratios and making sure staff are highly-qualified and well-rewarded. The Government’s approach, seeking to cut staffing and understating the importance of qualifications, puts it on the wrong side of the quality argument.