Ryan Shorthouse: Early years education must be affordable for everyone

EDUCATION really is the passport to thrive in modern society. Without a basic education, people are left feeling disillusioned or excluded. It is these people with no or low educational qualifications who are most likely to experience unemployment, family breakdown and commit crime.

The good news is that educational attainment is improving for most people. And it’s not because exams are getting easier. The political scientist Professor James Flynn has shown that intelligence levels, as measured by people taking the same IQ test, are improving decade on decade in most developed countries.

Despite this, there are still too many young people leaving school without decent qualifications, earning Britain an embarrassing reputation for underachievement. Roughly, 30,000 16-year-olds leave school without any GCSEs each year.

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It is children from the poorest backgrounds who are more likely to fail at school. The attainment gap between rich and poor is evident before children are two-years-old, but widens considerably as children get older.

In fact, Dr Leon Feinstein of the Institute of Education has found that if poor children do score highly in ability tests at 22 months, most are overtaken in tests scores when they are 10-years-old by children from rich backgrounds who initially performed badly.

Poorer children are evidently not innately intellectually inferior. Their worse performance at school is because the opportunities and experiences they have are not as rich and stimulating as those received by wealthier children.

This includes their schooling. So it is right the Government is determined to expand the number of schools, especially in the poorest areas, so more pupils can have the opportunity to access better quality teaching.

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Feinstein’s evidence also shows that those children who score well in their early years are much more likely, at the age of 26, to have achieved A-levels or higher.

Only 18 per cent of five-year-olds who score badly in ability tests will have an A-level or higher when they are aged 26, compared to nearly 60 per cent of five-years-old who score well in their ability tests.

High-quality pre-school education in the early years of a child’s life, particularly for the poorest, is therefore critical for improving life chances.

Here in the UK, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project found that children attending high-quality formal childcare from the age of two have higher test scores at aged six than those not attending childcare, and the gains in ability were more enhanced for those from poor backgrounds.

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Parents need to know that high-quality formal childcare is a very important part of their children’s education. At the moment, all parents of three and four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week at any formal setting of their choice, whether they are working or not.

Many low-income parents with two-year-olds are also entitled to 15 hours free childcare each week.

Trouble is, many parents need to purchase childcare for more than 15 hours a week because of their work commitments. In addition, most parents with children under the age of three need to pay for childcare entirely from their own pocket, although some are entitled to tax credit support or tax exemption on employer-supported childcare vouchers. The costs of formal childcare are simply too high for many parents.

It is a tragedy that many children cannot access formal childcare because of this. What is very baffling is that this is unlike other parts of the education system – schools, further education colleges and universities – formal childcare is not totally free at the point of use. Considering the evidence shows the early years are the most critical time for children’s development, because of rapid brain formation, this is absurd.

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Childcare costs continue to rise and government support is reducing because of fiscal austerity. In April, the coalition Government cut support for childcare costs through the tax credit system. Families are struggling. A recent survey by the Daycare Trust and Save the Children of parents living in severe poverty found that a quarter of them have given up work because of difficulty finding childcare.

The Government is right to focus on improving educational standards. But early years education plays a critical role in delivering this, and so a sensible Government must find ways to make it affordable for all families.

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