Most of the attention in our education system is paid to the older end - exams and universities. Yet much of the action - in terms of making a difference - takes places at the start. Or even before children arrive at school. Put it this way: if you want better GCSE results, you should invest in nursery education. As in so much of life, prevention is better than cure. It is better that all children start school ready to learn and get a good start when they arrive, rather than that we struggle to catch young people up later - possibly after they've lost faith in their own ability or missed critical parts of the curriculum.
The new findings from Save the Children, as part of the 'Read on. Get on.' Campaign, make this point vividly:
- Three out of four teachers said that they had seen children arriving in reception struggling to speak in full sentences
- Four out of five teachers feared that these children would struggle to catch up with their peers
- Just one in five teachers thought that the government is investing enough in preschool education
- Eight out of ten teachers believe that investing more in the quality of preschool education is key to improving school results
Some children begin school already coached in phonics; others start with a severely limited vocabulary because they are raised by the television and deprived of conversation.
Let's be clear: schools can correct this. They should correct it and it must not be an excuse. But could we not get further and faster, for all children, if they didn't have to?
This means that education in the early years is vital. But we can't just pay lip service to this. We should treat the staff who work there like professors in terms of training, resources and rewards. Childcare is useful for working parents but it is not enough. It is possible to combine high quality education with play and socialising in a sensible balance: this is not too much too soon. Parents have, of course, the vital role to play. There is no greater gift than a few minutes a day reading together. Conversations which are more than just instructions matter too.
Literacy is a birthright. It is not just about employment, although that matters. It is about enjoyment and it is about empathy. When you read a book you spend a brief moment of time seeing the world through someone else's eyes - thinking thoughts you might never have had, meeting people you might never be able to meet. But literacy begins with the spoken word. Before we can link the shapes on the page with the sounds of speech we need to be able to discriminate those sounds. Before we can enjoy or learn from a book, even if someone else is reading it to us, we need to know what the words mean. And before we can write a great story, we need to have something to say.
We face a difficult time financially but to cut our investment in early education and support for new parents would be the ultimate false economy.