Sal McKeown: Early Years Education – High quality but under threat

I am delivering two seminars at the TES Special Needs show next month that will draw on research for the PACEY publication Caring for Children with SEND and articles about nurseries, childminders, playgroups and schools that I contributed to Practical Pre-School magazine over the last two years.

Taking place from 7 – 8 October at the Business Design Centre in Islington, this will be the first time I have focused on early years education at the show. I brought this on myself because last year and the year before I complained that there was not enough coverage of this important phase of education and it was suggested that I should do something about this instead of just protesting.

The early years sector is alive and thriving with outstanding provision in both private and state nurseries and a highly qualified professional workforce of teachers, nursery nurses and childminders. However, it is facing serious financial problems.

The government has announced plans to double free hours, so that in 2017, free care for three and four year olds in England will rise from 15 to 30 hours a week. However, schools say that they cannot subside early years provision. Their budgets are being squeezed, government funding for academies has fallen and staffing costs have risen.

It is not just school nurseries that are affected. According to the accountancy firm Moore Stephens, 29 nurseries became insolvent in England and Wales in 2015/16 compared with just 16 in 2014/15.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there is enough nursery provision but a National Audit Office report has warned that councils might struggle to find providers willing to offer the 30 free hours for all eligible children.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance sent out an online questionnaire to members last month. Of almost 1,500 who replied only a third said they would definitely offer the 30 hours, and 49% feared they would have to close having to close because of the plan.

I have no solutions to tackle the financial crisis, but to be fair right now neither does the government. My job is to highlight and celebrate the excellent work that is going on.

On Friday 7 October at 3:30pm I will be talking about Developing Good Practice in Inclusive Nurseries, featuring the work of Castlecroft Primary School Nursery in Wolverhampton, Flutterbies, a 50 place nursery in Rotherham, and Petts Wood Playgroup and other settings.

On Saturday 8 October 2016 at 12.30pm I am doing a quick roundup of some of my favourite products in a session called Tips for Choosing Resources for an Inclusive Nursery with the emphasis on using simple effective and low cost resources.

Everyone from politicians to parents agrees that pre-school education matters. This is the time when children develop vital cognitive and social skills such as early reading and math, and social interactions.

The charity I CAN is well aware of the vital role of early years educators in helping children develop essential language and communication skills. Their report Speech, Language and Communication Need and the Early Years says: ‘The early years is a critical period for children’s development – most importantly for children’s speech, language and communication which in turn underpin so many other areas of children’s development… Analysis shows that good communication, language and literacy at a young age have the highest correlation with outcomes in school at seven years.’

Even the government agrees that early identification and support is vital if children are to make good progress. It is trying to extend the number of hours on offer but now it must allocate the money needed to support its good intentions.

To find out more about the TES Special Needs show, click here.