On The Ladder Of Education, The First Rung Is The Most Important

19/07/2017 11:41 BST | Updated 19/07/2017 11:41 BST

The Education Select Committee has a new chair, Robert Halfon MP, and at National Day Nurseries Association we welcome him and look forward to working with him.

This committee is more important than ever in its role examining the policies, admin and spending of the Department for Education.

Featuring prominently within this busy workload will be the highly-flawed 30 hours 'free' childcare, rolling out across England in September.

More on that later. First, I want to talk about ladders.

In his acceptance statement, Mr Halfon said:

"A picture of a ladder has pride of place on my office wall. I call it the ladder of opportunity. To me, education is such a ladder. Our job as parliamentarians is to make it easier for learners to climb it."

This is encouraging. Maybe all politicians should be issued with such an image, neatly framed, perhaps on taking office.

So, how easy would it be to progress smoothly up that ladder of opportunity, of education, if the first rung or two are rickety, maybe missing completely?

Nurseries are children's first experience of education.

They provide high-quality care and learning. A total of 95% of them are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.

But low funding levels associated with 30 hours is putting those great childcare providers at serious risk.

Many will accrue bigger losses on funded places as a result, pushing up costs for other families. Many will risk putting themselves out of business if they cannot balance their books.

Others have already opted out of 30 hours to avoid this very real possibility.

We are pleased that Mr Halfon, a former education minister, has listed the implementation of 30 hours in a bullet-pointed list of matters for his urgent focus.

With 30 hours at serious risk of failure, and full roll-out just over a month away, it's vital that the committee makes this a priority and looks at solutions that could make it deliverable, such as the ability to charge for extras such as food, as a condition of a place.

In Essex, the location of Mr Halfon's constituency, for example, the average rate paid to nurseries is £4.21 per hour - hardly a viable amount for the South East of England, taking into account higher overheads.

This situation is a far cry from the recommendations of OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation, the intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 member countries including the UK.

Its education and training policy acknowledges broad rationales for prioritising public resources for early childhood education and care (ECEC).

The benefits range from the economic and social, to support for parents and female employment, to of course educational attainment and life chances for children.

Many leading economists agree that a pound, euro, dollar or yen spent on preschool programmes generates a higher return on investment than the same spend on schooling.

If you like graphs and charts, you can see a whole series mapping these theories in the Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care document.

There is also some interesting reading about the brain's 'astonishing' rate of development in the earliest years of life and the need to 'use it or lose it' in childhood.

OECD research has shown that students who went to preschool for a year or more perform significantly than classmates who didn't, to the extent that it's as if they had benefited from an extra year's schooling.

Given that Mr Halfon and the Education Select Committee have the responsibility for scrutiny of the whole learning gamut from early years to higher education, we hope they will give this OECD material some consideration.

Mr Halfon has pledged to strengthening every rung of his ladder of opportunity.

So, how do you fix a ladder? You start at the bottom.

Everything begins with that all-important first rung.