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Elizabeth Truss MP: Tackling the toddler achievement gap

Liz TrussElizabeth Truss is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, and is the Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk. Follow Liz on Twitter.

Last week, at a seminar on the early years hosted by Frank Field, academic experts presented a compelling chart. It showed that significant educational gaps in England, far more so than other top-performing countries, emerge not at age 16 or even age 11. In fact, there is already a significant gap by the age of 5, before children have started school. This shows why a high quality early education is so important. And it is especially important for children from low-income families, who often don’t have the same chances growing up as children from better-off homes.

How do we raise standards and close the gap before the age of 5? The evidence is clear: it’s about people, not process. Professor Cathy Nutbrown has pointed out that people who cannot themselves master the basics in English and maths can hardly be expected to teach our young children to read, write and add up properly. Evidence from the government’s pilot scheme for the early education programme revealed that 2-year-olds in good or outstanding settings saw tangible benefits, yet those in poorer quality settings were no better prepared for school than if they had stayed at home.

These facts are critical as we set out how the new programme of early education for 2-year-olds from low-income families will work. The evidence strongly suggests that if we want 2-year-olds to receive lasting educational benefits from the three-quarters of a billion pounds the government is spending, they should be placed in high quality settings. Simply doling out places without any regard to their quality would risk wasting a great opportunity, not to mention taxpayers’ money.

So as we enrol 130,000 2-year-olds from low-income families into our early education programme over the coming year, rising to 260,000 in 2014, we must focus on quality. We want providers to have enough funding to employ staff who will give these children a high quality education. Our aspiration is that all eligible 2-year-olds are receiving their 15 hours a week in good or outstanding settings. To this end, we are funding local authorities at an average funding rate of £5.09 per child per hour, significantly above the market rate of £4.13.

We will only achieve our goal if these funds reach the front line. Schools and nurseries need sufficient resources to recruit and retain talented staff, while the best child-minders will only be attracted by competitive fees. This will be achieved if providers receive full funding. I am calling on councils to pass on all funding for 2-year-old places directly to providers. Maximum transparency will ensure parents and providers can hold local authorities to account for their funding decisions.

Providers often tell me that they would like to expand into other areas but find this almost impossible thanks to the differential rates paid by local authorities. When I met providers in Leeds recently, they told me some councils paid less than £3 per child per hour for early education for 3- and 4-year-olds, whereas others paid as much as £5. We cannot expect providers to offer a consistently high standard of childcare across the country when local funding rates are so varied. That is why we have calculated allocations for 2-year-old places on a set national formula, adjusted only for each area’s average costs.

Local authorities will have the crucial role of raising awareness among parents. They have a direct interest in doing so as, in future, we will link funding to participation. Local authorities will receive funding for 2-year-olds according to the number of families that have taken up the offer in previous years. So this funding comes with a clear message: use it, or lose it.

We need schools, nurseries and child-minders to step up to the challenge. Lower quality providers must raise their game so that they are in a position to receive 2-year-old funding, while high quality providers should consider options for expanding to meet demand and new providers should offer their services. Ofsted is launching a new tool that allows people to see which providers are rated good and outstanding in each area. I want providers to study this information, identify where provision is patchy, and strive to improve it. If we are to deliver the high quality early education these 2-year-olds deserve, everyone must all play their part.


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