I’ve just made one of those rites of passage that makes you feel a whole lot more grown up. On Monday last week, Sarah and I left the house with our eldest but still very little son, now two years and just four months, for his first day at nursery. He carried on his back a backpack that Sarah had filled the night before, with his painting smock, indoor shoes and an orange. The mini bag was still enormous on him and as he waddled out of the door, my heart almost burst with pained pride.
It is a nervous moment. Will they like it, will they want to come home, will they hit anyone or snatch their toys: it brings to the fore many of the neuroses that arrest parents for their middle age years. It is a formative moment too – the point at which children are forced to learn what it is like to exist in a community, rather than the inherited bonds of family life. This is new: up until this point they have known nothing else. Certainly we can see the effect already, even though we are only two weeks in: it is truly impressive how big and immediate an effect this change of environment has been.
Like every parent, we want the best for our children and hope that he is getting it from his new nursery. These are vital years – the first 1,000 days, as policy makers call them – when the child’s brain is most malleable. What we do now has more impact on their confidence and security than most other experiences that people will have through the rest of their lives. So whether nursery or parenting in general, we have to get this right. Which is why the quality of childcare, whether nursery, pre-school or childminders, is so important.
On that front, there is broadly good news. For the sixth year in a row, the proportion of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders judged by Ofsted to be Good or Outstanding has risen and is now at 91%. That is an astonishingly consistent level of quality, far higher than the rate you find in the state school system. Because more than 9 out of 10 childcare ‘settings’ are either Good or Outstanding, it follows that almost everyone is within reach of Good or Outstanding childcare provision.
There is an even more important fact that lies behind that rating. The proportion of good and outstanding nurseries is now almost the same in the most deprived areas of the country as in the least deprived. Sadly, this too is not true of schools, where the gap is still there and means that if you come from a less privileged area you are still less likely to be able to go to a good school that in a richer area. The fact that we have achieved parity in childcare shows that it is certainly possible in schools.
Things in Suffolk accord with these national averages. The proportion of early years provision which is Good or Outstanding is 90%, just one percentage point below the national average. 69.7% in the east of England children achieve a ‘good level of development’ at the end of the early years foundation stage, which is similar with that of the rest of England. So early years provisions also proves something we should remember when talking about schools: there is nothing inherent in Suffolk that makes it inevitable that our schools should do any worse than the national average.
All of this is good news for children in Ipswich and across England, many more of whom will have access to good provision with the introduction of 15 hours a week free childcare in the months ahead. We are about to see a revolution in the provision of early years care – all of which happens in a sector that is already performing very well. That is good news for parents everywhere, including us – which is something parents as well as the little people can cheer.