Pre-school services are of value, say experts

30 Aug 07
Childcare experts have dismissed concerns that investment in services for pre-school children might be a waste of time and money.

31 August 2007

Childcare experts have dismissed concerns that investment in services for pre-school children might be a waste of time and money.

Research published by Durham University this week showed that there has been no change in the developmental levels of pupils starting primary school over the past six years. This is despite a slew of government initiatives, worth £21bn, focused on early years education and care – including Sure Start, a 'national curriculum' for the under-fives and free nursery education for all three-year-olds.

But Sue Owen, director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau, said it was too early to start rethinking policy. 'These are initiatives to improve the quality of early-years settings and staff; not until those have bedded in will we expect to see significant changes for children's outcomes,' she told Public Finance.

'Studies such as these are valuable but we need to look more closely at the measures being used and find out what they are really telling us rather than being panicked into changing horses midstream.'

Durham University researchers assessed the cognitive development of almost 35,000 children starting primary school between 2001 and 2006. Dr Christine Merrell, who led the research team, said that while the study had not measured how many children were participating in national initiatives such as Sure Start, she would have expected such major programmes to have resulted in measurable change.

She added: 'It is possible, however, that it is just still too early to measure the effects of these programmes, particularly those of the Children Act and Every Child Matters, which were only introduced in the past few years.'

Commenting on the research, Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said other research had indicated that targeting resources at young children was beginning to improve outcomes.

'Sure Start children's centres are underpinned by… research which has demonstrated the positive differences that integrated services can make to children's development. It also shows that investment in high-quality, inclusive early education leads to positive effects for children, families and communities, particularly in areas of disadvantage,' she said.

An Ofsted report also published this week painted a positive picture of general childcare standards. The vast majority of children in registered childcare were enjoying themselves and doing well, the watchdog said.

But around 4% of childcare providers inspected last year were found to be inadequate. They failed to provide a sufficient range of toys and activities to stimulate and stretch children and left them to wander around aimlessly.

Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert said: 'Where provision is inadequate we will continue to monitor those providers and take enforcement action where necessary.'


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