This week the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw caused a furore when he proposed that all poor two year olds would be better served in schools.
It was a shame that he missed this opportunity to really examine the situation for so many children from poor backgrounds and instead opted for an ill-considered, poorly researched and blatantly simplistic solution. It also made everyone question his motivation.
His initial statement was laudable, "we must not fail poor children", "We must help bridge the gap between rich and poor". Who would disagree with this? He also said the link between poverty and failure needs to be broken, again another sensible statement. But he said this without any consideration to the more complex issues that link poverty with failure. As the Chief Inspector for schools one would have hoped for something more thoughtful. We were left wondering whether he was a mouthpiece for Government or throwing the gauntlet down to the Government to do something radical? Neither position adds up though!
The principle, also mentioned by Sir Michael that there 'should be nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure' is something on which Sir Michael and I totally agree. It's the principle on which I built LEYF; a social enterprise designed to give children from poor backgrounds access to high quality childcare in a way that employs local people, builds in an apprentice programme and creates sustainable business in poor areas. We have done this gradually and prudently until we have a model we can share and extend. We now have 26 nurseries, providing 3000 places and 400 jobs. The principle is that all children are entitled to the best start but it can only happen if you have the right staff using a relevant pedagogy in an enabling environment and with the wraparound support that supports families to build a home learning environment. It's a shame Sir Michael did not have a chat with us first.
So why has he managed to ruffle so many feathers?
Well he begins by blaming the private and voluntary sector for the fact that children from poorer families are not what he calls 'school ready' by the time they are four? This is odd as his own statistics have shown a continual rise in quality in the sector year on year. Also children are not statutory age until they reach five.
He says put two year olds in school early and they will succeed but children aged three have been in school for the last 12 years and there is no research that shows that by being in school they have successfully helped children become 'school ready.'
He alludes to research which does not exist. Nowhere does it say that says two year olds from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to better succeed educationally by being in a school environment. It hasn't worked for three year olds.
He fails to recognise that being poor does not make you a bad parent - being poor causes great distress and challenge, the stress of which can negatively affect parenting skills.
He did not acknowledge the complex lives of many two year olds from poor families. Poverty needs more than one solution and giving a child a space for 15 hours a week in a school will not fix the more complex family and societal issues like unemployment, poor housing and generational educational failure. Their parents have all had the benefit of state education and it has not solved their problems.
Many of those poor two year olds he mentions are very needy babies, with no language, insecure attachment and behavioural problems, nutritional issues and parents who are either unable or unwilling to be warm, authoritative parents which is, as we know, the most successful parenting style. The children and parents need nurture and care before either can make the best use of a nursery environment. They need high staff to child ratios with attuned adults who form good relationships with them and start to build a pedagogical bridge. Read our report
Many of those poor two year olds he mentions are children of immigrant parents with limited English. Staff need time and some additional external support to help these parents.
Finally, (for now!) he fails to acknowledge the current reality which is the decimation of local authority support services necessary to help these children's success such as teaching and learning support, training for staff, access to speech and language therapists, family support and a continual shortage of health visitors.
No one objects to making sure that every child has a flying start or as our US colleagues would say 'no child is too small to fail but they will fail if the care and education we give them is inappropriate and incorrect.' The cost of failure is enormous, just read Professor James Heckman's economic theories on this. Ironically, we can blame the poor themselves for not responding to the initiatives. What would have helped was if Sir Michael had called for a shared philosophy to agree a coherent approach built on collaboration between the Government and the sector. The cycle continues....