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Ofsted chair Baroness Sally Morgan has called for more ‘all through’ schools incorporating nursery, primary, secondary and sixth form to help address the gap in development between disadvantaged children and those from better off families.
Baroness Morgan made the speech at a conference organised by the ARK chain of academy schools, of which she is a board member and said: “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. We've increasingly got five to 18 schools, why not three?” She later amended this to include two-year-olds.
She said that many disadvantaged young children have a “dire” start with children from low income families being up to a year and a half behind their better-off classmates by the age of five.
Currently, most children in England get 15 hours of free early years education at the age of three or four before starting school in the September following their fourth birthday.
Baroness Morgan, who was previously political secretary to Tony Blair, director of government relations at 10 Downing Street and a minister of state for equalities at the Cabinet Office, told the conference: “You're much more likely to have them [children] starting primary school, ready, without the big gap and ready to learn.”
Nick Ward, principal of Marine Academy in Plymouth, which takes pupils from 0 to 19 years, agrees that ‘all through’ schools is the way forward. He said: “Working with children from the earliest years is key to what we're trying to do. Early intervention ensures that all our pupils are school ready from the start when they begin full-time education. We can also inculcate values of aspiration and ambition from the earliest years. We believe this is absolutely key to successful progression through the education system and beyond.”
However Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, branded the suggestion “beyond belief” and said: “Who would disagree with Sally Morgan that children from disadvantaged backgrounds need considerably more support however to suggest that placing two and three-year-olds in schools is the answer is beyond belief.
“Social inequality needs to be addressed in many ways and taking very young children away from their parents and placing in formal schooling is not the answer.
“Yes, evidence supports the fact that early years settings with highly qualified staff provide better outcomes for children however this is one contributing factor to a complex issue. What support is being offered to the parents of these vulnerable children? Many in the early years sector have already identified and currently offer specialist support to these families in partnership with other family professionals such as health visitors and social care practitioners. Surely this is where investment needs to be focused?
“Good parenting is a key factor to ensuring children are happy and thrive in later life and needs to be at the centre of policy-making.
“For many early years providers, this latest announcement further supports a view that here is an obsession by Government and Ofsted to drive our youngest children into a formal school environment before they’re ready and able to flourish.”
Mr Leitch highlighted research recently carried out by Dr Jo Van Herwegen at Kingston University London which found there should be a clear difference between nurseries, pre-schools and formal schooling and emphasises there should be a focus on structured play and the development of basic learning skills in the early years.