Elly Roberts is the Editor of the magazine Early Years Educator which is aimed at anyone working with children under five. After training as a journalist and working in local news, she worked for an education charity which supported the provision of library resources in schools.
Hi Elly, thanks for speaking with us. Here’s a starter for 10. How important were books and reading in school for you?
Books were incredibly important to me in school. When I was little I would spend hours just staring at the pictures in books, making up additional stories to the one the author had written and imagining the illustrations moving differently alongside my version. Long before I could actually read, the idea of a fictional world fascinated me; a world that didn’t exist but that you could pretend things differently in. As I got older books definitely became a refuge from some of the pressures students go through in later school years.
Do you remember your first favourite books that all children should have?
For me this was any of the Bramble stories by Benedict Blathwayt and also The Toymaker by Martin Waddell – the pictures were just so enchanting and expressive. But the book I’ve read the most was The Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson. I’ve read it so many times… It inspired my life-long love of the rainforest and I still have it on my bucket list to go to Brazil. It would just be so wonderful!
Do you think literacy is important for early years education, and if so why? What important skills do young children learn whilst reading/being read to by an adult or each other?
Literacy is key to early years education. This is the time in everyone’s life when they are building those neuro-pathways that allow them to develop language and learn the system by which humans communicate. It’s fascinating to me that right from birth humans try to communicate, even in the most basic form of crying, and that as babies get older they develop an understanding of what adults are saying before they are able to say words themselves.
Inspiring a love of language, reading and the ability to reach out across the divide between humans with a sound representing a concept, is so important for children and something that needs to start in their very earliest educational experiences. Because if those foundational elements aren’t there initially, it is so difficult to rebuild them later on. Children have very few experiences to draw on due to their age. Therefore, if they have a bad one when, for example, initially learning to read, that will inform their attitude to reading for the rest of their life, and sadly more often than not adversely affect their ability.
When children are read to by an adult they are also developing their listening and oral comprehension skills, which is fundamental for being able to communicate in later life.
1 in 8 schools across Britain do not have a library. Have you seen/had experience of educational inequality in the early years sector?
Absolutely. It’s a terrible statistic when you think about how many children that actually affects. When I was still a reporter on a local paper I was covering a story about a community event and one of the organisations there was the local library. They were handing out free books to children, and there was a little boy who received a copy who had never owned his own book before. I didn’t fully appreciate that this is something lots of children experience in this county, or the impact this therefore has on their literacy and wider education journey.
This child must have been about 5 and the look on his face when he realised that this was his very own book that he could take home and read whenever he wanted, was, well heartbreaking for an adult onlooker. He was so pleased and excited! It really made me realise how important libraries are and what a fantastic idea they are! In our September 23 edition of Early Years Educator, June O’Sullivan, CEO of the London Early Years Foundation, writes, ‘Poverty is…the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will achieve at school,’ in an article discussing the attainment gap already visible in early years settings. This is so sobering, especially in light of the manifold efforts education staff make to enable children to achieve.
How do you think the cost of living has affected the Early Years Sector? Do experts in the sector report it has made tackling inequality more difficult?
Settings are going out of business on a daily basis because of it; the costs of things like nappies for example can be the difference between a nursery balancing the books or not. New Ofsted figures show the number of childcare places has massively fallen since March 2022. In total, there are now 24,500 fewer childcare and early years places on the Early Years register, 4,800 few registered providers and 3,500 fewer childminders. One of the problems is settings cannot provide early childhood education and care at the cost the government pays for what it calls ‘free childcare’ offered to parents. Therefore, the shortfall is made up through charging higher fees to parents who pay for their hours.
However more and more parents are unable to pay these higher fees, so settings are finding it harder and harder to make their income match their costs.
What are the top challenges that you’re hearing from your readers/contributors of those working in the sector?
Well, it’s a sector in crisis. We have a perfect storm of problems:
- Staffing crisis. Difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff due to low salaries and high staffing costs. This is also leading to a lack of progression so staff are leaving the sector for better pay and prospects elsewhere.
- This is coupled with the cost of living crisis and the government providing funded places at a rate which doesn’t cover costs. This means often leaders’ hands are tied when it comes to offering staff training opportunities or salary increases.
- A lack of money in the sector is leading to settings being less able to provide specialist support for children with SEND or children with English as an additional language – and settings are seeing a big increase in children who don’t speak English as their first language due to global events.
- Ofsted. This is another massive one for the whole education sector, causing staff to leave the sector in droves. The stress caused by inspections and the inconsistency over what an inspector is looking for in early years settings is huge. Ofsted have promised change but we still haven’t seen any meaningful changes announced. I haven’t spoken to anyone who hasn’t had a bad experience with Ofsted, and as an early years teacher said to me recently, “if it was a school, Ofsted would have been shut down long ago for being ineffective”.