“These years are the foundation of a child’s educational success or failure. The damage done by not dealing with literacy and numeracy problems at that age means that in many cases it will come back to haunt the child later in life. It doesn’t matter whether the system is selective or elective at age 11 or age 14, if the preparation at 3-6 has not been successful, that child will struggle and potentially lose out on their life prospects.
“I have not come here to conference with all the answers – far from it. I have come to put the issue on the high priority list so that the Assembly can debate it (whenever it gets around to debating serious issues, that is), and so that the professionals can have their say.
“Let us look at what some of the issues may be:
• the desirability of the State providing a curriculum for 3-6-year-olds;
• the use of assessment at early age;
• transfer from nursery to primary schooling; and
• training for providers of Early Childhood Care and Education.
“How does this fit into our principles? Firstly, we must lead the way in ensuring that every child has the same educational chances at the outset. That is why the Alliance Party has a commitment to nursery education for all, but that is pointless without proposals and resources for using that education to best effect.
“Secondly, the economy is reliant on everyone coming through schooling with a sound basic education – but that is not what is happening. Too often education in general is left out of the debate on re-balancing the economy. When it is included, we talk only of matching skills – an important task in itself, but not the only thing the education system should be providing for the economy.
“Thirdly, our sustainable schools policies should extend right to the start of education – that is the only long-term future. We cannot just make provision on an ad hoc basis. We need to consider the facilities that are required, how they may be shared, how transport may be provided.
“This is not about literacy and numeracy – although that too is a worthy issue about which there is too little debate. It is about providing for our youngest children, to ensure they all have a fair chance when it comes to formal education in English and Maths, and other subjects.
“Already, yet again, we risk being left behind. Scotland is taking the lead on detailed proposals for early years education and provision, and the UK Government has also researched the issue and sought to learn from other European countries for England and Wales.
“Oddly, conference, this is an issue about which the parties can find common cause and I intent to bring a debate to the Assembly to make the point to the Minister, with the backing of other parties that this issue deserves a higher and more urgent profile.”