Study of Early Education and Development: Good Practice in Early Education
The aim of this study was to explore how good and excellent quality early years settings articulate, establish and sustain practices that have the potential to improve child outcomes. In particular the study aimed to explore from the perspective of setting staff and parents:
• How early years settings articulate and sustain high quality teaching and learning;
• The features of leadership and management that contribute to high quality provision;
• The role staffing and issues related to recruitment, retention and work force development have on good practice;
• How effective relationships are maintained with parents;
• How providers support home learning.
The UK Government spends substantial amounts of public funds on funding early years provision (House of Lords, 2015). At present, all three- and four-year-olds in England are entitled to funded early childhood education and care, for 570 hours per year (equivalent to 15 hours per week, for 38 weeks of the year). More recently the Government has expanded this entitlement to benefit two-year-old children living in lower income households in England. From September 2013, two-year-old children living in the 20 per cent most disadvantaged households in England became eligible for 15 hours of funded early education per week. This was extended in September 2014, so that two-year-old children in the 40 per cent most disadvantaged households in England were eligible for 15 hours of funded provision. Funded places are available in private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings, childminders, maintained nursery schools and nursery classes. In accordance with the Childcare Act 2016, from September 2017, all working families with three- and four-year-olds who meet certain earnings criteria will be able to receive an additional 15 hours of free childcare, which means that in total across the existing universal provision and the new provision for working families they will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year (equivalent to 1140 hours of free childcare per year).
The take-up of the funded provision is high. The most recent official statistics show that 94% of three-year-olds and 99% of four-year-olds were taking up some government funded early education, and among the eligible two-year-olds, 58% were receiving the free provision (DfE, 2015). There are, however, some concerns about insufficient availability of funded places in some local authorities (Rutter, 2016) and about lower levels of take-up of the funded provision among families in more disadvantaged circumstances (Huskinson et al., 2016; Speight et al., 2010).
In addition to the funded provision for two-, three- and four-year-olds, support for families with childcare costs is available through tax credits and employer-provided childcare vouchers, which are tax exempt up to a certain limit (HM Government, 2013), with plans to extend this support further (HM Treasury, 2014). For example, under the new Universal Credit, working parents will be able to claim back up to 85% of their paid out childcare costs (DWP, 2013). In addition, the new Tax-Free-Childcare scheme which will be rolled out in 2017 and will gradually replace the employer-provided childcare vouchers, will offer working parents who meet certain earnings criteria 20% support towards qualifying childcare costs up to a value of £2,000 per child per year. The Government also supports the early years sector more directly, for example, through the Early Years Pupil Premium funding, which follows the child and is paid to settings attended by the identified children from lower income families (DfE, 2014a).
Availability, affordability and quality of early years provision have been the focus of policy making in England since the introduction of the National Childcare Strategy in 1998. In relation to quality of the provision, which is the focus of this report, the Government’s policy paper More Great Childcare states:
‘…High quality early education and childcare, delivered with love and care, can have a powerful impact on young children. The evidence is clear that a good start in these early years can have a positive effect on children’s development, preparing them for school and later life.’ (DfE, 2013: 13)
The requirements to early years settings and schools are set out in the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), which covers children from birth to age five (Department for Education, 2014b) and has legal foundations in the Childcare Act 2006. These requirements cover seven key areas of learning and development. Three of these areas are the prime areas, as they are particularly crucial for children’s capacity to learn, form relationships and thrive. These are:
• communication and language;
• physical development; and
• personal, social and emotional development.
Providers must also support children in four specific areas, through which the three prime areas are strengthened and applied. These are:
• understanding the world; and
• expressive arts and design.
One of the stated aims of the framework is ‘to provide quality and consistency in all early years settings, so that every child makes good progress and no child gets left behind’ (DfE, 2014b: 5).
The Government monitors the extent to which early years providers satisfy the requirements of the EYFS through inspections carried out by Ofsted using the Common Inspection Framework (since September 2015). Ofsted inspectors assess and grade early years providers using the following four scales, which are then combined into an overall effectiveness grade (Ofsted, 2015a):
• Effectiveness of the leadership and management
• Quality of teaching, learning and assessment
• Personal development, behaviour and welfare
• Outcomes for children.
No setting can achieve an overall outstanding effectiveness grade unless their grade for the quality of teaching and learning is outstanding.
The Government uses Ofsted ratings to monitor quality of providers offering the government funded hours of early education and care for eligible two-, three- and four-year-olds. The most recent figures show that 85% of eligible children received their funded provision in settings rated good or outstanding by Ofsted (Department for Education, 2015b).
The role of Ofsted in supporting good practice in early years through their inspections is of key importance. This regulatory system has been criticised for its limitations, as it is based around infrequent inspections and limited capacity for detailed feedback and support for the settings, as well as not capturing all aspects of the quality of the provision (Mathers et al., 2012). However, this was before the introduction of the Common Inspection Framework in September 2015.