The benefits of nursery education are well documented. The highly regarded longitudinal EPPE study found that ‘Pre-school benefits ALL children. [there are] Significant benefits for an early start (2 yrs on) and part time [attendance is] as beneficial as full-time’. EPPE also found that the ‘Benefits of pre-school are still apparent at aged 7’.
The previous government sums up this up well in the Draft Code of Practice (for provision of nursery education) due to be implemented in September 2010: ‘Major studies commissioned to track large groups of children are clear: besides good parenting, regular access to a high quality part-time place for this age group is the most powerful driver of positive outcomes for children. And the benefits are likely to be greatest for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, making the free entitlement a powerful part of our strategy to promote equality of opportunity and narrow gaps in achievement.’
The lack of specific commitment or even information from the Coalition government on the future of Early Years education and funding in is extremely worrying. I own and manage a small nursery in Brighton. We offer 15 hours per week free of charge to parents of children who are 3 and 4 years old. In other areas, children are entitled to 12.5 hours per week or 2.5 hours per day free of charge; we are in a deprived area and are funded to deliver the increased 2.5 hours as part of a pilot scheme. We also provide free early education for 2 year olds under a different scheme. The draft Code of Practice stresses the obligation on nurseries who get government funding (the vast majority) to offer places to parents free of charge, with no obligation to pay ‘top-up’ fees. At the moment, for example, if a nursery is open from 8.00am to 6.00pm they tend to operate in 2 sessions per day: morning (8am-1pm) and afternoon (1pm-6pm). Parents are given 2.5 hours of each session free but they must pay for the remaining 2.5 hours. This means, if parents are unwaged or on a low income, their child cannot attend the nursery. It is vital that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not priced out of the market when they are the very children who most need the support that good quality early education and care can give them. A requirement to offer places free of charge, as detailed in the Code of Practice ensures our poorest children get access to the education they are entitled to and will benefit from. State run nurseries (which vary in number in different parts of the country) and many smaller pre-schools have always offered totally free places where parents can just send their child for the 12.5 or 15 hours per week. Where settings are open all day, if parents want more hours then they have to pay, if not they don’t.
The ‘free at the point of delivery’ issue is controversial and the more free entitlement there is, the less happy many private nursery owners are. Many larger private nurseries do not want to offer free places because the rate of funding they get per hour from the government/local authority is less than the hourly rate they charge parents. For example, if a child attends 12.5 hours per week free and the nursery receives £3.50 per hour (which is in the right ball park) government funding but normally charges £5.00 per hour, they are ‘losing’ £1.50 per hour. If the child is given 15 hours per week free at £3.50 per hour, the nursery is losing £1.50 per hour for 15 hours per week per child. But this is not a reason to allow nurseries to charge ‘top-up’ fees; children’s needs must come first.
There are not many private nurseries in areas of deprivation because there is no money to be made from parents who can’t afford to pay a high hourly rate. But we need nurseries in deprived areas; they are particularly effective in building and maintaining trusting relationships with very needy families. This safeguards children and improves their prospects. It is not cheap to provide high quality education with well qualified staff. The previous government, in response to EPPE findings that settings with a Graduate leader were higher in quality and benefitted children more, introduced a flagship graduate level qualification: Early Years Professional Status. Staff have been encouraged to undertake this status and up until now it has been funded. Although there is an ongoing debate about wages for early years workers, settings have received subsidies to help them to pay an increased salary to retain graduates in the workforce.
A final but very important point in this age of austerity and deficit cutting is that it makes economic as well as moral and ethical sense to invest in early education. The Nobel Prize winner Professor James Heckman has found that money spent on early education result in a net financial gain ’through increased personal achievement and social productivity’.
Funding for Graduate Leaders, funded training for Early Years Professionals and schemes such as the funded 2 year olds in deprived areas, are all hugely beneficial in improving outcomes for children, as is the core Early Years funding. The new Coalition needs to ensure that nursery education is properly funded, to continue the excellent work done by the previous government and ensure all our children are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.