Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education. It is quite a Brief so l hope that those of us who have been grappling with it for a while help you.
I was very heartened to hear you say on the Andrew Marr show that you wanted education to be part of your ambition to improve social mobility. The door to social mobility is opened even before birth and there is a wealth of research, experience and knowledge which shows how the Early Years holds the key to narrowing the achievement gap. As CEO of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), the largest childcare social enterprise in the UK, our whole community nursery model is designed to increase social mobility, using a combination of subsidised fees, local employment and apprentices. We want all children to have the best possible start in their lives, we want parents to be involved, we want our employees to be the best they can and lastly, we want the education and raising of children to be a community affair. The fact that many children don’t have the best possible start in their lives is something we need to strive to change together.
The Early Years sector is more complex than it seems at a first look. Just below the surface there is a market place of different settings with a range of services to meet the myriad of parents’ needs. The sector works hard to respond to policies which are written to reduce social mobility through parental employment and high quality accessible childcare and education.
The issue of disadvantage further complicates the picture. Andrew Marr mentioned the sad situation of so many white boys failing in education which the Ken Loach film ‘The Angel’s Share’ poignantly brings to life. If you get a free minute in your new position, I would highly recommend this film as an accurate portrayal of the barriers to social mobility affecting young boys.
Understanding what is happening for small children is the litmus test for the current political, social and economic climate. The difficulties facing children do not just affect the Early Years sector. There is no separation between Early Years and other sectors, the problems facing children are the same problems facing wider society. The myriad and therefore complex problems facing white boys is a particular example. These children face barriers today, which means a whole group of white boys not only facing barriers to an equitable future but also such barriers disadvantage society as a whole. When one group falls through the cracks, we are all affected. More generally, indicators of the continuing inequality which we see in Early Years settings include high levels of language and communication difficulties, wholesale mental health, obesity and a range of behavioural issues all of which combine to create a toxic cocktail.
There are, of course, standard responses to these, some of which are much understood and some need your backing to resolve. Rather than overwhelm you with the problems and our solutions, perhaps we could invite you to visit a range of settings to get an overview of the Early Years world. Obviously as the largest group in London, we would be delighted to invite you to visit a LEYF nursery. Perhaps you might begin with a visit to a local LEYF nursery; two of which are conveniently sited very close to the DfE and the Houses of Parliament.
There are many in the Early Years who will welcome you and help you see the existing challenges from their perspectives, whether a member of the Pre-School Alliance, NDNA, Co-Operative Childcare, a local childminder or school. Generally, the sector shares the view that children matter and we want to get it right for them and you will find a generosity of spirit which should make your ambition to address social mobility easier.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, ‘A child mis-educated is a child lost’ and one child lost is our collective failing and our country’s future concern. I and my colleagues look forward to meeting you and your team soon. There is much to be done and time is of the essence where children are concerned if we are to give each and every one the best and equal start in life.