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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

In my ideal world, nursery staff would have the status and pay of professors.

Children can do better at any phase of school if they have the right preparation in terms of prior knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Some children arrive at the next phase with these 'resources' and forge ahead. Other children lack them and can fall behind. 

In order to improve the performance of any phase of education we should therefore look first (although not solely of course) to the phase before to ensure all children leave it properly prepared for life ahead.

Following these propositions to their end conclusion: early years is the most important phase of education and it is particularly important to focus attention on children in this phase from deprived backgrounds, to ensure they are not already falling behind before they've even begun. 

Poverty is not a cast iron cause of under attainment; many poorer families provide a loving and supportive environment in which young children flourish, but it is sometimes correlated with other factors, such as disruption and neglect, which can delay development. The work of Risley and Hart, for example, charts quite significant differences in language acquisition between different home backgrounds. 

Although the importance of early intervention seems logical and supported by evidence, it has no bearing on the design of our education system - where funding, status and attention seem directly correlated to the age of the student. As so often in public life, we treat the symptoms not the causes, to our ultimate cost. In my ideal world, nursery staff would have the status and pay of professors.

It is not enough, however, to say that early intervention is important we need to see what sort of early interventions work best. The history of education is littered with adherence to the form rather than the substance, the 'what' rather than the 'how'. 

Here the evidence is disputed. The ideal approaches vary by the age of the children. To me, it is early education that matters, not childcare alone. By education, I don't necessarily mean school-style instruction, of course, but I do mean more than letting children 'grow up' under safe supervision or non-stop play. 

It is also evident that such intervention must be targeted at the most deprived children while still enabling them to mix with children from all backgrounds. The 2013 IPPR report, Early Developments, suggests we are still not getting this right and that the best provision is not always where it is most needed. 

In terms of early education, it seems that language development is absolutely pivotal, including the arts of discriminating sounds, articulating sentences, engaging in conversations, asking questions and expressing needs. Early education should be a place of constant dialogue. This is the firmest foundation for literacy. 

At the same time, young children need to get used to working and learning alongside others, to sharing and to paying attention, to give and take, to making an effort, to, eventually, empathy. 

Both these intuitions are supported by the Early Years Toolkit produced by the Education Endowment Foundation, which puts communication and language approaches and self regulation strategies amongst the most effective interventions. It also suggests early numeracy and parental engagement as crucial. Interestingly it rates an earlier starting age as more important than extra hours. It considers the overall evidence for the impact of early intervention to be robust although the costs are relatively high. 

These benefits come through a combination of structured play and more formal teaching, a combination which tends more to teaching as the child gets older. We should not be embarrassed about performing teaching and instruction in the early years. The role of the adult is absolutely essential. They are not caretakers, although they take a lot of care and offer a lot of warmth and affection; even though the skills and content may be different they are teachers in the full sense of the word. 

If we accept that the quality of teaching in the early years is perhaps the most important factor in our education system, then the training, development, status and rewards of the staff who work there are essential. 

Here, too, we cut corners. We do not offer them equal status to other parts of the education workforce. We do not pay them well enough or invest sufficiently in their development. In the pursuit of affordable childcare we neglect the relative expense of education. Early years professionals should have access to full QTS and the teacher pay scale. Early years settings should be funded appropriately to cope with this.

The failure to follow the logic and to take early years as seriously as it should be - in our deeds and not just in warm words - is a false economy that risks undermining the rest of the education system. With a strong early years sector, primary schools have a flying start; with strong primaries, secondaries can focus on what they do best rather than catching children up. And so on right through to further and higher education.

10 July 2015