Baroness Sally Morgan, the chairman of Ofsted, has called for a radical drive to raise standards of early education, including enrolling more children in school-based nurseries
Early exposure to formal education is needed to eradicate the 19-month achievement gap seen between rich and poor pupils by the age by five, it is claimed.
Baroness Morgan said that many deprived children had “low social skills”, poor standards of reading and an inability to communicate properly, meaning they were “not ready to learn” when they entered the first full year of school.
She called for the creation of a new generation of “all-through” schools that combine nurseries with primary and secondary education – enabling children to be enrolled at the age of two or three and remain up to 18.
The comments come amid ongoing debate over the best way to prepare children for compulsory education.
Critics claim that too much focus on the three-Rs at an early age damages children’s natural development. A new campaign group – the Save Childhood Movement, which is being backed by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury – is calling for formal education to be delayed until seven, with play-based activities being adopted in nurseries and infant schools.
But the approach runs counter to current Government policy which has placed a sharper focus on literacy and numeracy alongside personal development in the pre-school “nappy curriculum”.
Baroness Morgan, a Labour peer, who joined Ofsted as chairman in 2011, said that too many children failed to get a decent grounding in the basics before the age of five, with the poorest children lagging just over a year-and-a-half behind the wealthiest. “What a dire start to their educational life,” she said. “Those children have low level social skills, especially reading and communication. They’re not ready to learn at school. Weak parenting, low educational attainment of parents, poor diet, poor housing and so on – the gap between affluent and disadvantaged is greatest in that group.”
Addressing a conference in central London organised by ARK Schools, she suggested that more schools should open nurseries to give children exposure to formal education at an early stage. Increasing numbers of schools are becoming “all-through” – taking pupils from ages five to 18 – but these schools could add nurseries to extend provision to two or three-year-olds, she suggested. “I think there needs to be a big bold brave move on the under-fives agenda to target funding heavily on the children who will benefit most and increasingly I think to look to strong providers to go further down the system,” she said. “We’ve increasingly got five to 18 schools, why not three?”
Speaking afterwards, she added: “I said three to 18, it could be two to 18 as far as I’m concerned.”
The Department for Education is already making funding available to allow poor families – those on income support or earning less than £16,190 – to claim free childcare for two-year-olds. They are eligible for 15 hours a week of care, which could take place in a school-based nursery. Baroness Morgan backed the early enrolment of children in nurseries attached to schools, adding: “You’re much more likely to have them starting primary school, ready, without the big gap and ready to learn. But at the moment, a lot of children from really disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t ready to learn so the school almost has to provide nurturing before it can start to educate.”
Richard House, a member of the Save Childhood Movement group, labelled her comments as “completely misguided”.
“If this proposal happens, I think it could be a catastrophe for young children,” he said. “What will happen is that early childhood will become ‘schoolified’. That early childhood is a period of their development and learning which has its own intrinsic value. It shouldn’t be treated merely as a preparation for schooling.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We know that teacher-led early years education has a positive impact on children, especially on those from low income backgrounds. That is why we are making it easier for schools to take children from the age of two by removing the requirement on them to register separately with Ofsted when doing so, and introducing 15 hours of free early education for 240,000 of the poorest two-year-olds. Our wider reforms will ensure all children, regardless of their background, get a good start in life. Every three and four-year-old is now entitled to 15 hours a week of free early education, and take up is at 96 per cent. In addition we have strengthened early years qualifications and today Ofsted has introduced a tougher early years inspection framework to help drive up quality in childcare.”