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Ryan Shorthouse: High-quality early years education is critical

Ryan Shorthouse works for the Social Market Foundation, which will be bringing out two reports this autumn looking at childcare affordability and an innovative new funding model for pre-school education.


How easily some commentators have joined forces with the rioters to trash modern society. But, for the overwhelming majority, society is better than it has ever been: crime is down, people are more educated and healthier, and standards of living are higher. The problem is not the state of today’s society, but that we have a small minority of young people unwilling or unable to join it.

 Education is the passport to thrive in modern society. It provides the basic skills for people to become employed, solve everyday problems, develop strong relationships and generate ambition and a sense of purpose. If young people do not have a minimum set of education qualifications, or believe education provides nothing for them, they are left disillusioned and disenfranchised. Engaging in criminal behaviour is not so risky if there is not much to lose.

Education attainment is improving for the majority, but there are still too many young people leaving school without satisfactory education qualifications. Roughly 30,000 16 year olds leave school without any GCSEs. Whether it is criminal behaviour, family breakdown or unemployment, it is these people with lower educational attainment who are most susceptible.

There are a range of factors that drive educational performance. The quality of teaching makes the most difference. But what is happening, bafflingly, is that many children are progressing through the education system without achieving the expected minimum at key ages. Without the necessary basic knowledge to master the next stage, no wonder they fail.

Right from the start, in the Foundation Stage profile assessments children have in their reception year, a significant minority do not achieve the expected minimum in each assessment scale. Still, they march on to the next year. And the proportion of those failing only swells as children get older.

It is high-quality pre-school education in the early years of a child’s life which will best prepare all children for success at school from the start. The evidence is conclusive on the effectiveness of formal childcare in improving cognitive development.

Here in the UK, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project found that children attending high-quality childcare from the age of two have higher test scores at aged 6 than those not attending childcare. In the US, the renowned Perry Pre-school project shows that when those from deprived backgrounds had been in intensive formal childcare as infants, they had better educational results at 18, were less likely to commit crime at 27 and earned more at the age of 40 than their peers who didn’t use childcare.

Trouble is, our pre-school education system is not yet free at the point of use, unlike with other parts of the education system such as schools, FE colleges and universities. Compared to the rest of Europe, UK parents have to pay considerably more out of their income to access pre-school care. Many parents - though government offers help for costs through tax credits, a small amount of tax exemption and a limited number of free hours – struggle to afford it.

Childcare settings – most of which operate in the private sector - are thus operating in fragile, localised markets, susceptible to the changing demand of parents. Their profitability is limited, as shown by the tiny number of multi-setting providers. So settings find it difficult to invest in recruiting and retaining high-quality staff. As a result, the quality of care, though improving, remains a problem.

As we are in a period of fiscal retrenchment, Government at the moment cannot spend any more money to boost affordability and quality. However, similar to how students afford the costs of going to university, government could provide parents with low-interest income-contingent loans, and this scheme could be designed to be fiscally neutral overall. Parents would smooth the high costs over time and so childcare would become more affordable, unleashing latent demand, and providing more resource for childcare settings to invest in high-quality staff.

SMF’s idea for childcare loans, which will be published in a report this autumn, could help build a high-quality, universal pre-school education service. This is one of the most important ways to boost educational development and stop the conveyor belt to crime.


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