Nurseries should be open all day to meet the needs of modern families, Liz Truss, the education and childcare minister, has said.
Too many nurseries only offer two slots a day – either from 9am to 12 noon or from 12 noon to 3pm – an arrangement that is not always suitable for parents who are struggling to “combine childcare with work and other commitments”, she said.
Ms Truss announced that the Government was giving every school the power to open their nurseries from 8am until 6pm so that they could offer “good packages to all parents”. In addition, more talented graduates will be recruited to nurseries and pre-schools.
Her comments come at a time when early years education is under new scrutiny, following chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech last week calling for schools to admit more two-year-olds amid fears that some nurseries are failing.
But teachers’ leaders warned there was a danger that children would be “institutionalised” at too young an age. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Children need a work/life balance, too,” This was unlikely “if your parents are exhausted and your parents are irritable and you don’t see them from 7 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening”, she added.
Her union will soon debate a motion criticising “the erosion of childhood and family life through proposed policies such as school starts for two-year-olds and extended primary school opening”.
“If you’re a child and you’re spending more time in a school or nursery, in a sense that’s work for you because home is where you are most relaxed,” Dr Bousted said. “There is concern that we institutionalise our children too young. We’re not against very good child care facilities.”
In her speech yesterday Ms Truss insisted top-quality teaching in the early years and more flexible opening hours were essential to closing the gap between children from high and low-income families before they start school. According to research, children from poorer backgrounds could be as much as 18 months behind in reading and numeracy by the time they start compulsory schooling.
“A child is a child whether or not they come from wealth or poverty they need the same nurture, love and learning in the early years,” she added.
“Teaching in the early years needs to be age appropriate,” she added. She gave the example of a parent counting the stairs as they carried a child to bed and singing nursery rhymes with their children as examples of the type of learning that could take place in an early years setting.
She also announced an expansion of the Teach First scheme – which places the highest performing graduates in disadvantaged schools – in early years settings – with the employment of 50 extra teachers. At present there are 16 Teach First graduates in early years settings.
“We want to see teachers in the driving seat and improving the quality of learning,” she added. “We want strong providers working with weaker providers to improve practice in the early years settings.”