Pre-school children from poorer backgrounds need the support of professionally trained teaching staff to stop them falling behind as soon as they reach school age, Ofsted said today.
In its first stand-alone Early Years Annual Report, the inspectorate argues that the pre-reception age settings best equipped to help break ‘the cycle of disadvantage’ are those focused on helping children to learn at the earliest age.
The report finds that the quality of provision in this sector has been rising in recent years – 78% of providers on the Early Years Register are now judged good or outstanding.
However, barely a third of children from low income backgrounds reached a good level of development at the age of five last year – and in some areas it was less than a fifth.
The report says that the current complexity and fragmentation of the sector means that neither the inspection, regulation nor information available about early years are clear enough for parents to compare quality across the different types of provision.
The current system also fails to properly recognise the important role that schools play in providing early years education and childcare. This is creating barriers and ‘disincentives’ for schools that want to offer early education and childcare for younger children to ensure they are well prepared to start school.
Other key findings in today’s report are:
- choosing the most suitable early years provider is often difficult for parents because the sector is ‘complex, opaque and of variable quality’ and the information available is unclear, patchy and inaccessible – particularly for those disadvantaged families who would most benefit from high quality provision
- providers in this sector need to be better held to account for their performance, particularly when they are in receipt of public money
- a lack of data and standardised assessment means that neither parents, providers nor the government are clear enough about whether children are ready for school
- data protection rules are currently limiting the information Ofsted can provide to parents about registered child-minders in their area
In a keynote speech to mark the launch of the report, HM Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said:
Too many of our poorest children are getting an unsure start because the early years system is letting them down.
We need a solution that is focused on the right things. It is no good a child attending early education if, when they get there, the provider isn’t effective. And what is most effective for the poorest children is the opportunity to learn. I know there are those who dislike the words ‘education’ and ‘teaching’ when it comes to very small children. They fear that teaching the smallest children will inevitably lead to less play and less freedom.
Setting up play and learning as opposites is a false dichotomy. The best play is challenging.
What children facing serious disadvantage need is high-quality, early education from the age of two delivered by skilled practitioners, led by a teacher, in a setting that parents can recognise and access. These already exist. They are called schools.
Nick Hudson, Ofsted’s National Director for Early Education, said:
Today’s report is just one chapter in a longer story about the importance of raising expectations for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and communities. Ofsted’s publication in June 2013, Unseen Children: Access and Achievement 20 years on, emphasised the importance of the early years for breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
We believe that not enough is being done to support and encourage parents, but particularly those who need the most help, to secure for their children the benefit that the best early education and childcare can offer.
This report unashamedly tries to break down the barriers between schools that teach the youngest children and the early years provision outside of schools. But we are clear that the most successful early years providers, whoever they are, are focused on helping children to learn.
The report makes a series of detailed recommendations for a simpler, more flexible and accountable early years system, including:
- there should be an agreement nationally on a small number of words for different types of early years provision that would be consistently used
- the government should introduce a nationally comparable and standardised baseline assessment at the start of Reception, with external marking for both the baseline and Key Stage 1 assessments
- schools should be given greater flexibility to support children in their early years and be incentivised to do so – including by removing the requirement for separate registration, regulation and inspection for this younger age group and more recognition of school leaders who voluntarily make themselves accountable for raising attainment on entry through engagement with the local early years sector
- childminder inspection reports that are subsidised by the taxpayer should always be published with contact details so the public can make full use of them
- the new pupil premium for three and four-year-olds should be extended to two-year-olds at the earliest opportunity
- local councils that do not have enough high quality provision should consider incentives for schools to expand their provision either on-site or in linked provision
The Annual Report includes tables comparing the local authority performance of children from low income backgrounds in the early years.
Ofsted today also published a companion report, Are you ready? Good practice in school readiness. This is based on visits undertaken by inspectors to schools and early years settings to capture how the most successful providers ensured disadvantaged and vulnerable children were better prepared to start school.