By Fiona Millar
If the Tories hadn’t cut funding for early years support, perhaps children would have a fairer start in schools today
So, Damian Hinds has woken up to the fact that there are huge gaps in ability between children from different backgrounds before they even start school. In a speech yesterday, the education secretary described the fact that children are starting school unable to communicate in full sentences or having barely opened a book as “a persistent scandal”, which meant some children never caught up with their peers.
I am not going to knock this blindingly obvious observation, since any recognition of a great social ill that may lead to more investment in the early years can only be a good thing. But when Hinds suggested that this area, and the home-learning environment in particular, is the “last taboo in education policy” he was just plain wrong.
Until the penny-pinching coalition government came to power in 2010, the issue of parenting support (even for babies in the womb), what went on in the home, and high-quality early years care and education, was an integral part of education policy. Then along came Michael Gove, whose first act as secretary of state was to remove the words “children” and “families” from the name of his department. Anything unrelated to core academic learning was deemed “peripheral” with the current schools minister, Nick Gibb, even describing the idea of social and emotional learning in the curriculum as “ghastly”.
Glaring inequalities in outcomes – the gap in GCSE results between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the rest is still around 19 months, and will take 50 years to close at the current rate – were to be resolved by a new generation of the taxpayer-funded faux private secondaries in free schools and academies. Rigid blazers and ties, military-style discipline (charged up by a troops to teachers scheme) and a traditional academic curriculum would apparently do the trick.
In the intervening years, as many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres may have closed, according to the social mobility charity The Sutton Trust, leaving the Labour government’s flagship early years programme “hollowed out”. Meanwhile, savage cuts to local government funding and real-terms cuts to school budgets mean that services such as parenting support advisers, speech and language therapy, mental health support and the sort of extracurricular activities that Hinds claimed could help to build vital character and resilience, are also evaporating.
Hinds is right to argue that an individual child’s educational, social and personal development cannot by perfected by school alone. The DfE-funded Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project has spent 17 years tracking the development of children from age three to 16, gleaning evidence about how the complex relationships between home, school and family works. But just as it is slow, painstaking work to gather the evidence about what helps children and young people to flourish, so it is slow, painstaking work to change cultures, aspirations and behaviour in the home. In fact, this type of work is so slow burning that we might only now be starting to see the impact of the Labour government’s policies for parents and children if they had been allowed to continue.
Hinds gets maybe two out of 10 for at least putting this vital subject back on the policy agenda, but it will take more than a few extra nursery places and “how to teach your kids to read apps” to resolve a deep-seated national problem.
In my experience as a parent, school governor and former chair of the Family and Parenting Institute, set up by the last Labour government to examine exactly these issues, the families most in need of support are usually the hardest to reach, and the least likely to respond to short-term gimmicks.
We need to wind the clock back to a point where the bigger political argument was about children, families, young people and schools, not just academic learning, exams and school structures. Hinds may have started a conversation about that yesterday, but, sadly, we have wasted a decade – and thousands of children have been let down as a result.
Source of the article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/01/damian-hinds-child-inequality-early-years-support-schools