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“The Benefits Of Early Years Investment May Take Decades To Be Seen”

Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, spoke to Richard House about why policy-makers should rethink their approach to early years

Richard House
Richard House, Early years campaigner
  • “The Benefits Of Early Years Investment May Take Decades To Be Seen”

Richard House: Neil, I’ve long been an admirer of your work leading the Pre-school Learning Alliance, and your courage in not towing the ‘establishment’ line on children’s wellbeing. What for you are the most important policy issues in relation to early childhood experience at the moment?

Neil Leitch: Many thanks, Richard. When it comes to policy-making, the biggest issue facing us today is the fact that more and more, government policy fails to focus on the needs of the child.

So when you look at the 30 hours, it’s all about getting parents back to work, rather than supporting children’s learning and development. Providers can now offer the free entitlement from as early as 6am and as late as 8pm Why? To help working parents. But has anyone asked what impact this could have on the child?

Baseline assessments, too – the government openly admitted they were about school accountability, about measuring and ranking schools. But as we know, early assessments should be about supporting each individual child’s learning and development.

So yes, I think the most important issue at the moment is ensuring that the needs of the child are at the centre of all early years policy-making. Frankly, it should be at the heart of everything we do.

A resounding clarion-call to the sector, Neil! I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps your work cannot but have a vital political dimension – not always something that early years people welcome. I guess you often reflect on just why it’s so difficult for politicians to really understand this fundamental truth. Is it more to do with ignorance, or narrow ‘economy-centred’ thinking, or poor briefing from experts, or a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of early development, or even an unconscious disregard for children (something Brits have historically been accused of) – or perhaps a noxious mixture of several factors?

Yes, the Alliance cannot help but have a political voice. An essential part of our work is lobbying and campaigning on early years issues, and I think that we’d be doing our members a disservice if we didn’t proactively represent their views.

I think it’s about politics being, by its nature, short-term. Political parties want quick wins that voters will remember at the next election. Why else a sudden pledge to extend the free entitlement to 30 hours days before the election, without any consideration given to deliverability?

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Early education isn’t like that: the positive benefits of investment may take years, decades or longer to be fully seen, and so politicians often shy away from saying: “We’re investing in the early years because in 15 years’ time, society will really benefit.” It’s much easier to say, “We’ll make childcare cheaper next year if you vote for us.”

Very interesting, Neil – I left that one off my list! So perhaps while education remains in the hands of competitive party politics, nothing will change: one compelling reason, perhaps, for taking education away from short-termist politics altogether? Or can politicians somehow be persuaded to pursue more sensible long-term policy-making?

Playing political football with policy-making not only undermines the good work done in the sector, but can also have a detrimental effect on children’s learning and development, as we’ve seen recently around baseline assessments.

So yes, there’s certainly a strong case for taking early education out of short-term politics. To ensure that the sector is both sustainable and high quality, we need a broad cross-party consensus on policy – not easy, but I’m hopeful it’s achievable.

There’s already a shift towards this, with Labour MP Helen Jones recently calling for a formal cross-party inquiry into the early years. I support this wholeheartedly, and would urge other politicians to follow Helen’s lead. If we really want to improve outcomes for children, we need to take the long-term view and not allow their futures to be gambled with for political gain.

Richard House is an early years campaigner.

Neil Leitch is chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the largest and most representative early years membership organisation in England.