Early Years Education – Giving every child the best start


  • The early years is a unique stage in its own right. Early childhood is recognised around the world as a valuable phase, but in England the Government persists in viewing the early years stage primarily as a preparation for school.
  • There are inherent dangers in adopting a narrow view of ‘school readiness’. In 2013 research by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) found that “For a child to be considered school ready, respondents stated that cognitive and academic skills such as reading and writing are not as important as children being confident, independent and curious. Teachers were the least likely, at four per cent, to rate understanding of reading, arithmetic and writing (RAW skills) as key importance to being school ready. Only a third of childcare professionals and a quarter of parents believe that a definition of school ready should include a child having a basic understanding of RAW skills.” 1
  • In 2013, a group of 127 leading experts and academics wrote, in an open letter to the then Secretary of State for Education, that proposed changes to early years education would cause “profound damage” to children.2
  • Despite the evidence, Ministers continue to advocate earlier formal teaching of literacy and numeracy and earlier formal assessment of children. From 2015 the Government plans to trial national compulsory tests for children (many aged four) starting in Reception class. The Government believes that it is necessary to have a baseline against which to measure progress.

  • The Save Childhood Movement in its Manifesto for the Early Years argues that the flaws in baseline scoring for four year olds include that:

    • Results are unreliable due in great part to the relative age difference of Reception  children – a potential 11 months difference is very significant at this age;
    • Testing the ability of such young children is notoriously difficult – even well trialled tests have been found to have problems with reliability and robustness;
    • Testing children at the start of their school life is likely to cause distress to some. Early years education should provide children with a positive introduction to schooling, not create unnecessary anxiety; and
    • A baseline test will increase a teacher’s workload and distract them from their primary purpose – to teach and support children using formative assessment which helps them to move each child on. 3

  • Evidence which shows that best practice in early years education includes both teacher-led and child-initiated activities is being ignored. DfE and Ofsted are increasingly valuing the former to the detriment of the latter.
  • Too much emphasis on formal learning and assessment will squeeze out play-based learning from the curriculum. This is despite the fact that children are still in their early years of development and the evidence shows that learning through play must be at the heart of early years education. Through all kinds of physical, constructional and social play, children become more aware and more in control of their physical and mental activities. This allows them to gradually rely less on adult support and become more intellectually and emotionally independent. 4
  • A 2004 study of 300 children funded by the then Department for Education and Skills showed that an extended period of play-based pre-school education made a significant difference to learning and well-being through the primary school years. 5
  • Research in New Zealand in 2013 compared children who started formal literacy lessons at age five with those who started age seven. It showed that early formal learning did not improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who started aged 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension than those who had started later 6.
  • Starting formal education later is the practice in many European countries, particularly those in Scandinavia. These countries have better academic achievement and child well-being. Children start school at age seven following a play-based Kindergarten between ages 0-6.
  • The well-being of children should be higher on the agenda of policy-makers. In both 2007 and 2011, a UNICEF study of the well-being of children in England showed that England compared poorly to other OECD countries for child well-being. 7
  • Qualified teachers are vital to the quality of early years education. The 2014 Ofsted report on early years education restated that nursery schools get the best outcome for children. 8  It stated: “Children from low income families make the strongest progress when supported by highly qualified staff, particularly with graduate level qualifications. Nursery schools have high levels of graduate level staff and perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones”.  Nursery schools are the only early years setting that employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).
  • Low pay and low status is one of the key drivers of recruitment and retention problems within the early years sector. The greatest resource and key determinant of quality in early years setting is its staff. These staff should have good levels of training and be rewarded appropriately for their work.
  • The NUT believes that qualified teachers are essential to high quality early years education and that teachers in this phase should be qualified teachers. This is not to make nursery education more formal, but to ensure sound pedagogy based on the developmental needs of the children. The new DfE “Early Years teachers” do not have QTS. This is indefensible when evidence shows that qualified teachers make the difference. 9

1 PACEY (2013), What does “School Ready” Really Mean. A research report form Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years [online]. Available at: http://www.pacey.org.uk/pdf/School%20Ready%20Report%20FINAL2.pdf

2 Graeme Paton (11 September 2013), ‘Start schooling later than age five, say experts’, The Telegraph [online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10302249/Start-schooling-later-than-age-five-say-experts.html

3 Save Childhood Movement (2014), Manifesto for the Early Years. Available at: http://www.savechildhood.net/putting-children-first.html

4 Whitebread, D. et al. (2005), ‘Developing independent learning in the early years’, Education, 3-13, 33 (1). pp. 40-50. Available at: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/cindle/news.html

5 Sylva, K. Melhuish, E. Sammons, P. Siraj-Blatchford, I and Taggart, B. (2004), The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage 1. Available at: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/RB_pre-school_to_end_of_KS1(1).pdf

6 Suggate, S. Schaughency, E and Reese, E. (2013), ‘Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier’, Early Learning Research Quarterly, 28 (1). pp.33 – 48.

7 UNICEF Office of Research (2013), Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A Comparative Overview.
Innocenti Report Card 11, Florence: UNICEF Office of Research. Available at: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf

8 Ofsted (2014), Early Years Annual Report 2012-13. Available at: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/earlyyearsannualreport1213

9 Melhuish et al. (2004), The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project.