Investing in high-quality early years education key to brighter future, says early years expert Dr Lesley Curtis OBE

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“If we prioritise quality investment in the workforce for young children, we can prevent the issues we currently face in primary and secondary schools, ensuring a brighter future for our children.”

Dr Lesley Curtis Headteacher of Everton Nursery School and Family Centre

Investment in high-quality education for children under five will help ensure a brighter future for the next generation, says early years expert Dr Lesley Curtis OBE.

Lesley, who is Headteacher of Everton Nursery School and Family Centre, has launched a new project called “Coaching Early Conversations Interaction and Language” (CECIL). The SHINE-backed initiative aims to address early language and communication inequality in disadvantaged communities by supporting effective practice within early years settings.

Lesley says that investing in skilled early years educators is pivotal to improving long-term outcomes for children and averting future challenges in primary and secondary schools.

“While everyone may express interest in this age group, the investment of time, energy, and funding are not always of the same quality as the funding is for older children in primary or secondary school,” Lesley says.

“This lack of investment in early years, particularly in the workforce, can have repercussions in later years. We’ve already got lots of primary schools who are concerned about the children they’re receiving in reception and going through into year one and this was even before COVID began to emerge.”

Lesley points out that one of the main challenges facing young children today is limited engagement with adults. She says, “Children as young as 18 months are now exposed to mobile phones and iPads, which sometimes can be their only source of interaction.

“However, these devices provide one-way communication, which is not the same as the interaction between two people. This lack of interaction can affect a child’s behaviour and emotional attachment, especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when children were confined indoors and were not able to interact with other children.

Lesley notes that this can lead to practitioners seeing communication and language as a challenge, rather than it being celebrated.

“Communication and language creates inquisitive learners who want to know more about the world around them. The opportunity for children to play with words and unpick their meanings, which can create brains that are interested and switched on.

“First-hand learning experiences, such as exploring the outdoors, can foster a love of learning and create meaningful conversations. Young children want to go outdoors and talk about spring, ducklings, eggs and explore all the fascinating world around them.

“They don’t want to just look at the world in a book or on a screen because that’s second or third-hand learning and doesn’t create the same opportunities to really talk about the content. This can be particularly important if children are new to English or are struggling with their language development.

“I truly believe that speaking and listening is the bedrock of enabling children to make sense of the world, which is also essential for other subjects. If children can master these skills, this can lead to success in reading and writing.

“If we can capture this, then we will enable lots of talkers and we want children to talk because then they can grow into adults who are confident communicators and don’t feel discouraged because they don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves.”

Nursey teacher in early years provision

Despite a clear understanding of why language and communication are crucial in the early years, finding high-quality practice can be a challenge. This can be even more significant in disadvantaged areas where children need effective educators to give them that opportunity so they can match their peers. However, this is often not the case due to the settings that they are in, which may have a lack of resources and limited access to training.

Lesley adds, “Early childhood educators are key, as they need to understand child development and be able to communicate effectively with young children. The lack of high-quality educators can cause children to regress rather than progress, which is concerning as they are expected to enter reception with confidence in communication and language.

“COVID further highlighted the need for early years support, but this issue existed before the pandemic. Practitioners and educators must understand child development to ensure that children successfully transition into reception.

“This includes being aware of the different phonics programmes in primary schools and ensuring that children are confident communicators and ready for the next phase of their learning.

“Unfortunately, many settings lack the necessary knowledge of child development and may not question how young children learn or behave. As a result, some children may exhibit autistic behaviours which go undiagnosed. This can lead to a lower starting point in reception classes, which is contributing to an increase in school exclusions, especially among boys even by the age of 5.

“Funding for early years services has been inconsistent. We used to have Sure Start centres providing a range of services to young children and their families. However, over the past two decades and with all the political change, there have been a lot of funding reductions, and this has led to a serious decline in the quality of early years services.

“This has resulted in losing many excellent practitioners who opt for less challenging and better-paying roles in other sectors like retail. We need to address this issue and ensure that young children have access to high-quality educators.

“Coaching and mentoring programmes, like CECIL can support current practitioners in understanding child development, but more is needed. Investing in Early Years requires a collective effort and providing the necessary support for young children.

“I am extremely passionate about this issue and believe it’s essential we prioritise early years investment as children under five require the investment for their future.”

Read more about Lesley Curtis' project “Coaching Early Conversations Interaction and Language” (CECIL).