Investing in early years education improves equity in education, says OECD. Will the new minister take note?

Janet Downs's picture
A longer period of “pre-primary education, smaller pupil-to-teacher ratios and higher public expenditure per child all enhance the positive effects of pre-primary schooling.” So says the latest OECD report.

Participation in pre-primary education is high in the UK (96.7% of four-year-olds, 83% of three-year-olds). All three- and four-year-olds in the UK are entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year. But the UK still spends less than the OECD average on each pre-primary pupil. This is caused by comparatively large pupil-staff ratios (15 compared to an OECD average of 12.3). Yet the incoming junior minister with responsibility for early years, Elizabeth Truss, is in favour of increasing the child/staff ratio despite the OECD’s findings that smaller ratios increase the effectiveness of pre-school education.

Ms Truss’s calls to deregulate child care, outlined in her CentreForum report, have been criticised by early years charities including the Daycare Trust, the National Childminding Association (NCMA) and 4Children. And one registered childminder, Penny Webb, is so alarmed by Truss’s appointment that she has started a petition to the Government to reject deregulation.

In her CentreForum report on childcare Truss quoted the OECD finding that public spending on child care in the UK was exceeded only by four Nordic countries. However, she didn’t include the OECD warning that comparing total public funding for child care between countries was made difficult because local government (as opposed to national government) funding was not always included in the data. Canada, for example, is shown in the data as having no public spending on child care, but does in fact finance child care through local “non-earmarked general block-grants”.

There is a danger that Truss’s interest in child care coupled with her enthusiasm for market forces will blind her to the deplorable level of funding on early childhood educational institutions. In 2009, the UK spent about 0.25 of GDP on such provision putting the country at 27th place out of 29*.

But pre-primary education can play an important part in combating social exclusion and promoting inclusion by offering disadvantaged children, in particular, a better start. The findings by the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) Project showed that pre-primary education had a “positive impact on children’s progress over and above important family influences”. Both the quality of the pre-primary experience and the quantity (more months but not necessarily more hours/day) were both important. The report also stressed the importance of properly-qualified staff with subject knowledge together with an understanding of child development and learning strategies.

Rather than concentrating on deregulating childcare and bringing in an agency system like the one in the Netherlands where, according to NCMA, it is now being abandoned because it increased costs and drove down quality, Truss should be addressing the UK’s pitiful underfunding of education in the vital early years.

*OECD Education at a Glance 2012 Chart C2.2 downloadable here.

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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 10:12

FullFact looked into Truss's claims that, “Since 2005 the number of childcare places has stagnated... The number of registered childminders fell by 45% from 100,000 in 1996 to 55,000 in 2010...British state childcare spending as a proportion of GDP is already almost twice that of other leading countries,”

FullFact concluded, "Elizabeth Truss' claims on childcare have proved, with a fair bit of searching, to be largely backed up by the data. Whether this justifies her proposals for changes to the way in which we regulate and support childcare is, of course, another matter."

FullFact's analysis is here:

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