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Levelling the playing field from birth to graduation: why universities have a crucial role to play in ensuring every child has a chance to flourish and thrive

  • 8 March 2024
  • By Amanda Broderick
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Amanda J. Broderick, Vice-Chancellor & President at the University of East London.

The impact of the earliest years of life

BusinessLDN – the independent voice of business in London – has recently published a report with KPMG and the Central District Alliance analysing the business impact of the lack of affordable, quality childcare. The challenges facing an outdated early education and childcare system in the UK, together with the consequences of the pandemic period, have reached a critical point, with recruitment and retention issues hindering much-needed reform. The chief executive of the Early Years Alliance has gone so far as to claim that the government’s current plans “spell disaster.” It is increasingly well understood that there is no time more critical to children’s emotional and social development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life. It is also clear that a lack of good quality early childhood provision and support causes both risks and long-term ramifications for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society. A partnership that goes beyond Whitehall is now needed, involving businesses, educators, parents, caregivers and communities in a collaborative effort to address the profound issues at play.

The role of universities in early years

Universities, as hubs of research and knowledge, are in a unique position to forge partnerships that connect organisations and experts working on critical analysis and innovative solutions, creating the genuinely collaborative ethos and ecosystem needed to drive meaningful change. At the University of East London (UEL), we recognise the scale and complexity of the challenges facing the early years sector and have worked to establish ourselves as a system leader driving connected thinking.

Work conducted by UEL’s International Centre for the Study of the Mixed Economy of Childcare shows the impact of the growth of private childcare provision, and colleagues have advised governments in the UK and abroad, including most recently in the Irish Republic, on childcare policy. Last year, Emeritus Professor Eva Lloyd gave evidence to the House of Commons Education Select Committee, urging the government to invest more in early education provision, with conditions attached to its use, and to address the current workforce crisis.

Specialists working in this area provide vital expertise, but the strength of universities also lies in being able to convene researchers and practitioners from a breadth of areas and provide solutions that are informed by multiple disciplines. If the government is serious about addressing the cost, availability, and quality of childcare, they will need to consider evidence from across the full spectrum of research and practice.

This includes using novel methods to increase our understanding of the earliest stages of child development. The London Borough of Newham, UEL’s home borough, has one of the UK’s highest rates of child poverty and the lowest life expectancy of all London boroughs; this provides UEL with both a unique opportunity and responsibility. As urbanisation becomes increasingly dominant, UEL’s Baby Dev Lab takes a critical role in understanding the impact of urban environments on early childhood development. The lab’s pioneering approach uses wearable technology that babies, parents and carers can use in the lab, home or external environments, creating new opportunities to make discoveries about behaviour and development in community settings. The lab prioritises the underrepresented and harder-to-reach voices of underprivileged children and families, actively involving diverse and vulnerable communities in co-creating interventions.

World-leading research cannot exist in a vacuum however; innovations need to find their way into homes, nurseries, and classrooms if they are to have impact. The Baby Dev Lab’s findings have reached over 50,000 early years practitioners and led to substantial changes in teaching environments, as well as impacting the design of child-friendly public spaces through a series of commercial partnerships with companies including Center Parcs. Making connections with local schools is vital, and the Newham Learning network gives UEL the opportunity to work with over 40 schools and nurseries, creating a pathway for practitioners to have their voices heard.

This research feeds into the high-quality early years and primary teacher training that is vital to providing young people with the best possible start in life. Any reform to the early years system will rely on the expansion and retention of the workforce. As one of the UK’s most socially inclusive universities and one of the largest providers of early childhood courses in London, UEL provides careers-facing education to a diverse body of local and global students who are often the first in their family to study at university. Trainee teachers and UEL staff are embedded in local schools, multi-academy trusts and communities, improving their teaching practices and supporting children and young people in some of London’s most deprived communities, every day.

Universities must use their power as global convenors and mobilise to provide capacity, support, and expertise both at home and abroad. For example, with the largest transnational education provision in Greece, UEL’s research-informed Early Childhood degrees encourage graduates to critically reflect and explore what works across different national systems.

‘Mental wealth’: the importance of emotional and social development

The thread connecting all these areas of research and training is an underpinning focus on emotional and social development, what we at UEL call ‘mental wealth’. This does not exist within a disciplinary silo – it is a way of thinking about development that can be applied from birth to graduation and beyond. UEL embeds emotional and social development from the ground up, taking a whole-institution approach in recognition of the fundamental importance of equipping students with more than core disciplinary knowledge and skills. Every level in every degree includes our ‘Mental Wealth and Professional Fitness’ curriculum, fostering emotional, social, physical and cultural intelligence together with digital proficiency, building the competencies needed to flourish and thrive in a 5.0 economy. 75% of UK UEL students come from households with multiple indicators of deprivation – using a social capital scaffold, UEL seeks to ‘level the playing field’ at every stage of learning.

Across the country, through transformative research and innovative partnerships, UK universities are providing solutions and support for sectors such as early years. Our universities are unique and hugely valuable assets which are embedded into, and working with and for the communities they serve. University-led systems thinking in early years, connecting businesses, educators, government, parents, caregivers and communities in a collaborative effort can be a catalyst for positive change, ensuring that every child, regardless of background, has a fair, healthy, and positive start in life.

1 comment

  1. Lavern Johnson says:

    I found this blog thoroughly extolling and echo the sentiments’ as I myself have work over 16 years in the EYFS sector and have first hand experience of how fragmented the EY is in England. I am now studying here at UEL and working towards Be The Change for practitioners, children , their family and myself.

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