Early Years are important for later life.

The Early Years Foundation Stage profiles (EYFSP) for 2016-17 were published earlier this week by the DfE. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/early-years-foundation-stage-profile-results-2016-to-2017 interestingly, they show continued improvement in many areas.

The DfE noted that at a national level, 70.7% of children achieved a good level of development, an increase of 1.4 percentage points (ppts) on 2016. The same trend was seen in the percentage achieving at least the expected level across all early learning goals. This has increased by 1.7ppts from 2016. However, the average total point score has remained the same as 2016 at 34.5.

Girls continue to perform better in the profiles. However, the gender gap for the percentage of children achieving a good level of development has reduced from 14.7 ppts in 2016 to 13.7 ppts in 2017. Similarly, the gap for the percentage achieving at least the expected level in all early learning goals decreased from 15.7ppts in 2016 to 14.7 ppts in 2017. Both girls and boys have improved but boys have improved at a faster rate. The gap in the average total point score has decreased from 2.5 to 2.4 points. Nevertheless, there still remains a long way to go.

The Secretary of State has always been interested in social mobility. Indeed he helped found the All Party Parliamentary Group on the subject (APPG). In a speech this week he highlighted the importance of the home in both the pre-school years and the help and encouragement families can provide during the school years. He said the following, echoing a speech Nick Clegg made when he was deputy Prime Minister during the coalition;

On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind at age five. That grows by an additional six months by the age of 11, and a further nine months by the age of 16.

So, by the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers.

Then what? Well as I’ve said, your education stays with you.

Children with poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed when they are aged 34.

It’s command of language, being able to express ourselves effectively, that is the gateway to success in school – and later on into later life.

As I said earlier, more than a quarter – 28% – of children finish their reception year still without the early communication and reading skills they need to thrive. It’s not acceptable and tackling it must be our shared priority. My ambition is to cut that number in half over the next ten years.  https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/education-secretary-sets-vision-for-boosting-social-mobility

Now money and Opportunity Areas may help, but how about inviting the script writers from Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdate and the other soaps to a roundtable at Sanctuary Buildings to ask for some key plot lines. When did a school parent’s evening last feature in a soap? Indeed, how often do schools appear in soaps? More often they are relegated to their own genre. A national campaign using soft media such as the soaps to encourage families to support their children’s early and continued learning might help to shift attitudes to closing the gap the Secretary of State was highlighting in his speech.

As he said, the DfE has looked at the progress of children on free school meals early in the century and found that

Children eligible for Free School Meals when they are at school are 23% less likely to be in sustained employment at the age of 27, compared to their peers.

Now many of these adults are no doubt are in areas of high unemployment, but the more you make use of the education system, the greater it seems is your chance of employment as an adult. As Jack Tizard and his fellow researchers found in their study in Haringey in the 1970s, even parents that couldn’t read themselves could sit and help a child with their reading with better results than other more education related programmes. Their study showed a highly significant improvement by children who received extra practice at home in comparison with control groups, but no comparable improvement by children who received extra help at school. The gains were made consistently by children of all ability levels.*






Ending child illiteracy by 2025

The Liberal Democrat plan to end illiteracy by 2025 announced today would mean that every child born in 2014, ought to leave primary school in 2025 able to read and write at a standard identified to lead to success in secondary school and beyond. To help them meet this commitment to end child illiteracy by 2025 the Lib Dems would boost the early years Pupil Premium to an even higher level than the primary school Pupil Premium thus recognising the vital importance of a child’s early years for learning and development.
The Lib Dems would also overhaul early years teaching qualifications by letting nursery staff work towards Qualified Teacher Status and by 2020 requiring a qualified teacher graduate in every school or nursery delivering the early years curriculum.
As a Lib Dem, I have been fighting for better early years education for decades. This aim is reminiscent of the Millennium Development goals of 2000 that sought to ensure primary education for every child throughout the world by 2015. And what’s the point of primary education if children don’t learn to read, write, count, and lay down the skills to acquire the tools they will need for their future lives as adults.
Despite a focus of attention on the lack of education success among the poor that goes back to work undertaken when Ruth Kelly was Secretary of State in the Labour government, it is still clear, as Nick Clegg pointed out, that it is those less well off in society whose children don’t make the expected levels of progress.
Labour has been hinting about cutting tuition fees if elected. As Labour was the Party that introduced them in the first place in 1997, and then increased them, requiring students to repay the cash borrowed from day one rather than when they started earning, as now, Labour must say if it favours supporting undergraduates ahead of ending illiteracy in the next parliament; it cannot do both and still stick to its spending plans.
To achieve the ambition of ending illiteracy by 2025 means providing the cash for schools and early year settings to achieve this goal. Depriving local authorities of the cash to support pre-school settings where health, welfare and education issues can be dealt with together won’t allow the goal to be achieved. Yes, the bulk of the funds should go to schools and through an early years premium, but the work needs co-ordination and that is where local authorities need funds. By all means make it a ring-fenced grant, but do not force local authorities out of supporting initiatives by cutting their funding.
Schools also need to know how to deal with that small group of parents that are indifferent to their child’s progress and don’t, can’t or won’t work with the school and pre-school setting in helping their children learn. Helping schools know what works rather than everyone re-inventing the wheel will also ensure best use of the money. Does that mean a role for local authorities?

Was Professor Halsey right after all?

Educational Priority Areas grew out of the desire in the 1960s to improve the quality of education for those children living in the most deprived parts of the country. Now over half a century later we find the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that is chaired by a Labour politician and includes a former Tory Secretary of State for Education among its members recommending paying teachers 25% more to work in the most deprived schools as an experiment in improving outcomes for disadvantaged children. Well that sounds very like the Schools of Exceptional difficulty payments introduced under Margaret Thatcher’s regime when she was Edward Heath’s Education Secretary. This idea along with the instruction to Teach First to extend to certain coastal fringe areas this seems like another step in the move away from a free-market economics of education solution to a more planned and directed outcome to a problem that has be-devilled this country; the gaps in attainment between different social classes.

The Commission’s idea that the Pay Review Body might designate a new pay category that was non-geographical and thus unlike the present arrangements is really a challenge to the free market and comes remarkably swiftly after the abolition of national pay scales by the previous Secretary of State. The Commission noted that few academies had made use of the powers over pay that had been available to them in the past and this seems to have been one of the reasons for them advocating a more interventionist approach. Elsewhere, the Commission seem to have a somewhat fanciful notion of what local authorities can now achieve. It is all very well using the example of the London Challenge, but that was developed in a timeframe before the wholesale introduction of academies and free schools decimated local authority education departments. Realistically, the Commission needs to pay more attention to how far the complexity of running today’s school system may be adding to the very issue that they are trying to solve. As regular reads know, I would prefer local democratic involvement, especially in the primary school sector, but even more I would prefer a coherent management and leadership regime for the whole system that is dedicated to raising standards for all.

The Commission also discuss parental involvement and the poor quality of career advice that is often linked to low expectations. More must be done to encourage parents that the education system failed not to let the same thing happen with the next generation. Breaking the cycle of hopelessness is a vital component to raising standards as the Commission acknowledges. How to disseminate best practice rather than ritual nods to devolving training to schools and Teach First might have allowed for discussion about the content of both initial training and professional development of teachers.

Where I do agree with the Commission is in the vital role played by primary schools and the need to focus more attention on success in the early years. Regular attendance and strategies to help pupils that miss school are important moves in helping all pupils achieve success as last week’s publication of the EYFS profiles showed.

For anyone interested in the issue of social mobility this is an important but at times challenging and even depressing Report to read. It can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/364979/State_of_the_Nation_Final.pdf





Supreme Court one; Parliament a half

This has been a busy week, so I am catching up on various issues. The Supreme Court decision announced last week that cautions are no longer to be required to be disclosed for life makes real sense in a world where a volunteer pensioner reading to under-fives can currently be required to disclose all criminal convictions, even those acquired half a century ago.

Now I think is the time to bring the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and the disclosure rules into harmony so that everyone can easily understand what is required and why. This would include the police and the issue of ‘soft intelligence’. It would be silly if cautions, having been removed as part of the criminal record, reappeared in enhanced disclosures as part of ‘soft intelligence’ held by police and disclosed as part of the process of ensuring unsuitable people don’t work with children or vulnerable adults.

I have awarded a half to parliament because of the work of the group of parliamentarians that appeared at almost the same time as the Supreme Court judgement saying much the same thing. Less, helpful, as those who followed my blog after the stabbing of the Leeds teacher will know, was the actions of Labour and Conservative back bench MPs ganging up together to insert a new clause in the Bill currently going through parliament requiring mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of two offences of carrying a bladed instrument: a knife to you, me and the MPs.

To their credit most Liberal Democrats MPs voted against this proposal, and would presumably be happy to leave judgement on sentencing to the courts within the framework of a maximum tariff set down by parliament and the guidelines from the Sentencing Council.

How little there is to distinguish Labour and Tory policies also became apparent this morning in the interview the Labour Secretary of State gave to the Sunday Times. He is reported as saying that all two-year olds should be sent to school because basic skills such as counting and holding a pen are easier to grasp at school rather than at home or with under-qualified child minders. This sends a shudder through me. I suspect most two year olds aren’t ready for fine motor skills required in holding a pen, and as a colleague emailed me:

 Knowledge is now available through a keyboard and touchscreen and increasingly important works are available online. I was delighted to find Fuster’s “Prefrontal Cortex” and Hubel’s  “Eye, Brain, and Vision” available for free download. The basis skill for writing is therefore keyboarding, not pencil printing. And mathematical comprehension is derived from language not perception, so the best way to learn number is by playing with the symbol system on a calculator first. Remember: language is a set of arbitrary symbols with which children come to school equipped. When will politicians and academics understand that all improvement is technology-based? At present all appear to be in denial.

There is certainly a debate to be had about the importance of early writing skills in a technological age where two –year olds won’t retire from the labour market until the 2080s if present trends continue. By then, pens might be restricted to use in calligraphy as an art form.  I might have been more impressed if Mr Hunt had suggested the use of turtles and coding to make them run around the floor. But, he is a historian, so perhaps he is better at looking backwards than forwards.

Too late by five: the challenge facing educators

Summer born pupils have a lower outcome score on the early learning goals according to new DfE statistics released last week. Boys also do less well than girls and pupils on free school meals less well than other pupils. Pupils from some ethnic groups performed less well than others and the largest attainment gaps was between pupils with special needs already identified at that age and those with no identified special needs. The evidence can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/eyfsp-attainment-by-pupil-characteristics-2013

Many years ago I worked with a sociologist who was of the view that boys did better at nursery school because they were more demanding. They may still be both more demanding and boisterous, but they don’t do better according to this data. According to the DfE, 49% of all pupils achieve at least the expected level in all early learning goals, but that masks the gap between girls achieving 58% as a group, and boys at 41%. The widest gaps between boys and girls are in writing and exploring and using media where the gap is 16% point. The narrowest gap is in technology, at just one percentage point in favour of girls. In reading the gap is 11 percentage points.

The data are interesting on the term in which a pupil was born.  Some 60% of autumn born children achieved at least the expected level in all early learning goals. This compared with just 38% of summer born children.   Resolving this issue is essential if summer born children are not to be left behind throughout their schooling. How it can be resolved is a matter of judgement. In the first instance it might be interesting to see the outcome of these goals if administered after the same degree of exposure to schooling by children born at different times of year. If a middle class child girl in the autumn significantly outperforms boys on free school meals born in the summer then there is clearly a quality assurance issue that cannot be resolved by holding back the children that perform better. This is especially an issue in school-based activities, since the difference in attainment in writing is a 22% gap, and in numbers the attainment gap between autumn and summer born children overall was 20%. If these figures become widely known they might have an impact on maternity services if families chose to have more autumn born babies and less summer born children.

Perhaps not surprisingly, children where English was not their first language performed less well than native speakers of English, with the widest attainment gap being in speaking at 19% points, and the narrowest in moving and handling where it was just 2%, perhaps because this requires little language knowledge, except presumably to understand the task.

There is much debate about testing children too early in life, but some form of teacher assessment as a baseline seems a sensible approach if we are ever to make progress at removing the inequalities between different groups in society. These figures show the depth of inequality that is already in place by the time children enter formal schooling.

Food, glorious food

By sheer happenstance I was being interviewed by a BBC local radio station at 5pm on Tuesday when the story about free school lunches for all 4-7 year olds was released. The news that 16-17 year olds studying in further education will also be eligible for free meals on the same terms as their colleagues in schools was rather lost in the bigger announcement.

As a result of being in the BBC’s Glasgow conference set up I received a full briefing just by listening to those around me reciting their pieces to the different radio channels and stations news bulletins around the country. Consequently, I was able to respond to my interview’s questions with rather more fluency that might otherwise have been the case, and indeed with more fluency than on the story about reading that was the reason I was ‘on air’ in the first place.

But, enough about me: this is a policy that is a game changer. No creating sheep and goats in the primary schools of the future; no worry for those parents who dip in and out of poverty about whether they qualify for free meals if they take a particular job; no rows about packed lunches and what might be in them today, and where to find the time to shop for them and then put them together. And, on the positive side, children will be learning social habit together; children being introduced to new types of food; less exposure to unhealthy food; better concentration in the afternoon; and every child with at least one hot meal a day.

The way the policy is to be paid for is yet to be announced, and local authorities will be asking about the capital costs for kitchens, and the delivery expenses for rural schools where meals are prepared centrally. These are important consideration to be overcome, but small in proportion to the good that the policy can deliver.

There are those who decry the use of universal benefits even when, as  in this case, the benefit is both financially and socially useful to society as a whole, but better off parents can choose to donate the cost of the meals to charities such as Children in Need or their local food bank. For others is is like an annual cash boost of around £500 per child on the wage packet.

Eventually, I hope that the cash can be found to extend the policy to all at the junior stage of education, up to age 11. Habits are reinforced at that stage, and the link between the endless TV programmes on food and the reality of lunches can be made even more apparent as children begin to question what is put before them.

One other question that will inevitably arise is whether teachers will be expected to eat with the pupils or to be allowed a clear break at lunch-time? Many may choose the compromise of eating the actual meal together, but then retiring to the staffroom for a deserved bit of ‘me’ time. So, there may be some extra staffing costs in lunch-time supervision as all children stay on site.

Nevertheless, this to me is one of the best achievement for the whole of our school system in many a long year. I cannot recall the last time I felt so good in front of a BBC microphone. It was a strange feeling.

Babies and budgets

In the week that the Chancellor delivered his 2013 budget the DfE published new projections for the size of the school population. The DfE now has some idea of what the school population is likely to look like into the early years of the next decade, taking us past the 2020 point for the first time. On present predictions, the birth rate is likely to peak in 2014, meaning that the total headcount of pupils aged less than 5 in maintained nursery and state-funded primary and secondary schools is projected to reach a peak of 1,086,000 million in 2019; a 14% increase since 2012.

In 2010, the number of pupils in primary schools began to increase as the birth rate upturn started to have an impact on schools. By 2016, there are projected to be 4,462,000 million pupils in state-funded primary schools, an increase of 9% from 2012. By 2021, the number is projected to increase to 4,808,000 million, 18% higher than in 2012, and a figure not seen since the early 1970s.

Secondary school pupil numbers aged up to and including 15 are projected to rise again from 2016 onwards. By 2018, they are likely to have recovered to 2012 levels. The total size of the secondary school population will depend upon where those extra young people remaining in education until eighteen after the leaving age is raised decide to continue their studies; many will no doubt opt for the further education sector as it offers a wider range of learning opportunities to that of many school sixth forms.

The education of all these extra pupils must be funded. Recent debates have been about school places, but soon it will switch to the additional costs of extra teachers and the other resources that will be required for their education. Assuming that the increase in primary school numbers will be around 700,000 by the end of the decade, such an increase will require an extra £2.1 billion per year, even if only £3,000 is spent on each new pupil. In practice, the average spend across England is nearer £4,500 per pupil, so that would mean more than £3 billion extra may be needed each year even before factoring in the regional differences in the growth in pupil numbers since the average spend per pupil is £1,000 higher in London than for England as a whole.

In the budget Red Book, the Chancellor estimated spending on Education as a whole would increase from £51.4 billion in 2012-13 to £53.8 billion in 2014-15, possibly more than might be required during that period to fund the extra primary pupils. But, don’t forget that there is general cost inflation to take into account; schools pay more for their energy bills just like the rest of us, and there is the salary bill to take into account. The one per cent increase on an average salary bill of say of £166 billion adds £166 million to the annual teaching wage bill, plus the net effect of salary progression for those teachers not yet at the top of their pay scales. Add the cost of support staff of around another £80 million, and the annual age bill increases annually by close to £250 million a year before any more staff are employed. If non-pay inflation is only 2% that can add a further £140 million to expenditure even in a mild winter, meaning close to half of the increase over the two years is absorbed in rising prices and wages. Add in the net effect of academies whose expenditure isn’t contained in most DfE figures and the margin for new spending on the extra pupils entering schools becomes even tighter.

This is one of those classic dilemmas where politicians at Westminster can happily say one thing about protecting spending on education while their activists at the grassroots level are experiencing a very different reality. In this case, protecting may not mean improving. It probably won’t protect expenditure per pupil while numbers are on the increase and that will be hard to understand at the school gates.

Personally, it seems like a time for humility. Education has done well compared with many other government departments in this age of austerity, but the increased demands on its services means that the benefit probably won’t be felt in many schools. There’s also a message here for the teacher unions, and their leaders, during this conference season: be realistic not dogmatic.