Don’t just send all two-year-olds off to school – involve their families too

The quality of early years education in England has improved, according to a recent report from Ofsted. But while more than 80% of all types of nursery provision is now good or outstanding, not enough of the country’s poorest two-year-olds are taking up their right to free childcare.

All three and four-year-olds in England (and some of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds) are entitled to 15 hours a week of free childcare from all types of nursery education. In 2012, 93% of three-year-olds and 98% of four-year-olds benefitted from some free early education. Around 113,000 two-year-olds (42%) were eligible for 15 hours of free early education, says Ofsted, but did not take up their place.

Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, claims this is because “school nurseries have been colonised by the middle classes”. There are, however, other reasons: nurseries may not have capacity for two-year-olds, the fee that the government pays nurseries for each child may not be cost-effective for the nursery or school, and some nurseries are reportedly declining to accept two-years-olds from poor backgrounds.

We know that policies aimed at helping the disadvantaged can be of greater benefit to the advantaged. However, instead of focusing on the inequalities of access to early years care, we should be looking more at the quality of it. Crucially, families need to be more involved in what their young children are doing at nursery or school.

Here is my coat … is it home time?

In January 2014, in a report for the Sutton Trust charity, prominent early years experts Kathy Sylva, Naomia Eisenstadt and Sandra Mathers recommended that the government delay its expansion of free nursery provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds until it could guarantee access to good quality places. The government did not follow their advice.

Some nurseries are rushing to provide places and parents to fill them. Local authorities are doing their best to train nursery staff in areas such as the north and inner-cities that have been disproportionately hit by council cuts. I would like to be able to comment on how this compares with a national picture but the evidence is not there yet.

My conversations with speech and language therapists and other professionals who regularly visit schools and nurseries providing early years places in the north-east of England make clear that it is not access but quality of provision that is the main area of concern.

Access to places will vary nationally, but in areas of the north, many nurseries have been opening their doors to two-year-olds. But two-year-olds are not the same as three or four-year-olds. They tend not to sit as a group and they do not settle the same way. Staff need to be trained for this age group, especially in good communication. What needs to happen in a room of two-year-olds is therefore very different than for older children. One visiting professional I talked to remembered being followed around by an unhappy two-year-old with his coat. “I want to go home” was the clear message.

High quality pre-school can protect young children’s cognitive and social development. And we know what good early years education needs to include. There would be stable relationships between children and responsive adults who have a focus on play, communication and being physically active in a stimulating environment. There needs to be stable, high-quality staff with good leadership and high ratios between staff and children. And parents have to be involved.

Don’t shut families out

The recent Ofsted report has little to say about the role of parents beyond their choice of settings and their role as “teachers” at home. But families are crucial.

Early years education for disadvantaged children needs a joined-up approach between local authorities, nurseries and schools and other organisations involved in their children’s lives that engages with families and focuses on their strengths. This is an approach that is seen in some children’s centres that are providing places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

Oaktrees is one such, local-authority run, early-life centre based in North Tyneside that caters for up to 64 children of this age group and their families. They have a “stay and play” approach and parents are asked to stay in the centre when appropriate. Oaktrees told me that they offer other work with the whole family that includes adult learning and family activities such as cooking sessions and access to professional support. Links are made with other organisations such as the Adult Learning Alliance to increase the opportunities open to the families.

There is a shared language for parents and children about “learning journeys”. Noticing that nursery places were not available in other settings when their first intake of two-year-olds was leaving, Oaktrees now takes three and four-year-olds to give more sustained support. Most daycare settings do not have the staffing capacity for such a family-orientated approach that teams up with other community organisations.

Families need an approach that recognises and builds upon their strengths and capabilities. In families with children “succeeding against the odds”, teachers, peers and the wider community need to all be involved in helping the children and their parents. Research has shown that such an integrated community approach to schooling can have a transformative impact on children and families and is highly cost-effective.

Instead of blaming the middle classes for snapping up all the free childcare spots, the early years sector needs time, funding and the policy vision to develop high-quality provision that both involves parents, and works in partnership with other organisations to give them families more support.

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Written by Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University