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The Big Questions of Early Childhood: guest blog

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Thursday, 23 January, 2020

by Dr Verity Campbell-Barr, Cathy Nutbrown and Beatrice Merrick

The launch of the Duchess of Cambridge’s UK wide survey into early childhood is a welcome opportunity for those in the early childhood education sector to highlight their role in supporting children and families in early childhood and to emphasise the importance of children’s earliest years.  

For those working in early years education, the importance of early childhood is well established, with plentiful evidence on how a child’s earliest years are their most important. Not only do the early years provide an important foundation to children’s later learning, but they also offer those who work in early years education many joyful and rewarding moments as they bask in the rapid development that children undertake in their earliest years.

However, working in early childhood education is not without its challenges. At Early Education’s Annual Conference in May 2019 a presentation from Andrea Layzell and Sharon Hogan highlighted the daily hurdles that those working in early childhood education face in supporting children and their families. Despite being in their earliest years, children can all too often have complex lives making the focus on their well-being all the more important.  Many factors can provide an adverse start in life, but poverty and material disadvantage are often at the root of other problems. A current focus of our work is the increasing role settings and schools play in supporting families struggling to meet basic needs.

The questions raised by the Duchess are indeed big, and whilst research provides some answers to these questions, they also open up some important debates for society in general to think about early childhood development and how children can be supported to have the best start in life.

The first question asks people to rank what they think is the most important for children growing up in the UK today to live a happy adult life. A secure, safe and happy childhood is undoubtedly important in its own right, and with this comes the need for balance between features such as children’s physical and mental health, good friendships and relationship and high quality education and care. Opportunities to play in early years settings, their homes and communities is vital for children’s happiness, well being and holistic development.  Within early years education the common reference to holistic development is in recognition of how it is the sum of its parts that will help children have a happy life.

High quality early education is established as being able to support children’s holistic development, but our emphasis on quality draws attention to the importance of having well qualified professionals to work alongside children and families. Well qualified staff, including graduates and qualified teachers, can foster relationships and friendships between children, as well as working in partnership with families as an integral part of the process.

The question of who is responsible for supporting the health and happiness of children from birth to five, illustrates the importance of working in partnership, so that families, professionals and the wider community come together to support children. Such collaborative working can often mean that those who work in early years education are working with children and their families in support of their wellbeing.

A child’s family background is a strong predictor of their later outcomes, which in no small part fuels the question on nature or nurture, but research shows that it is not who parents are but what they do that is important. It will be interesting to see what the public think about the nature/nurture question, but in returning to holistic development, it is important that all aspects of a child’s development are seen as important, and that families who need it are supported in providing for the basic human needs of their children.

A child’s development is important throughout the whole of their childhood, of which the first five years are fundamental, and we would advocate that early childhood education is a crucial first step in a process of lifelong learning. Evidence clearly demonstrates that laying the foundations to lifelong learning is best achieved through investing in early childhood and in supporting families.

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr is Chair of the Early Education Board of Trustees and Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Plymouth University 

Professor Cathy Nutbrown is President of Early Education and Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield

Beatrice Merrick is Chief Executive of Early Education