Failure of the Free Entitlement? No way.

February 3rd 2012

The National Audit Office report  Delivering the free entitlement to education for three- and four-year-olds has sent the press into pessimism overdrive, telling us the £1.9bn spending on provision of the free entitlement by local authorities in 2011-12 (providing  places for  831,800 in 28,630 settings) was a waste of  money, with apparently no measurable benefits to children.
Absolute poppycock! The report actually said that it was probably too soon to tell, adding how there has been improvement in the Foundation Stage but this has not carried on into Primary School. Dare I say it’s maybe the hallowed Primary Schools that need addressing; or perhaps we need a serious conversation about what we as a country want for our children?

Unlike our contemporaries in Europe, we have never fully considered what we want for our small children; instead we simply react to external reports and anecdotal observations. What does measurement actually tell us if we are measuring the wrong or non-compatible things with the same set of measurements?  Apparently, we want children to be happy, whilst at the same time ‘school ready’ and successful.

Perhaps, someone should listen to the many commentators suggesting that maybe schools are not the right place for children as young as three, and that if they were in nurseries for longer (like their apparently more successful counterparts in Europe) there would be even more improvement, sustained for much longer.

In addition to improvement, the report looked at the hoary chestnut of funding, unsurprisingly concluding that the Department and its partners do not yet sufficiently understand the relationship between this and local performance – including how far variations in rates paid to providers reflect legitimate local factors – to be confident that funding arrangements are efficient. For example, certain local authorities use funding to provide limited incentives for providers to improve quality, despite finding no links with take-up rates or quality. It’s no surprise to see the report noting how funding formulae are complex, yet despite this, transparency and fairness of funding was improving. (Although funding remained insufficient to cover the costs for some providers, nursery schools received a much higher level of payment than the rest of the sector.)

The report concluded that the Department for Education (DfE) needs to address variations in take-up when it comes to accessing high-quality provision – along with the impact on attainment in later years – if it is to achieve value for money and get the best possible return for children from its annual investment of some £1.9 billion. I vote this should become a central strategy to the current work being done and the reviews being undertaken, so that every DfE activity weaves together to deliver a coherent service, one which parents can both understand and buy into without all the confusion that is raised by so many emotive headlines.

I would caution that if we are to truly measure the longer term benefit, we must remember what we are measuring. Our children (including the two-year-olds) are babies and must be allowed to enjoy their childhood.  Value for money is important, of course, but if we are showing improvement already let’s start from that premise; measure the right things in the right way.  What we want is for children to have a happy childhood; Early Years is a crucial step towards that, but not a stick to be beaten with if children do less well in Primary Schools.

Mr Gove, I urge you again to take more interest in the Early Years and stop assuming that Primary Schools are perfect.  Be as critical of them as you are of Secondary Schools, and let’s have a more in depth look at transition. Remember what this report says: there has been improvement in the Foundation Stage.