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Why businesses need to understand the importance of quality early years education

Sarah Ronan, Early Education and Childcare Coalition

In a tight labour market, the most successful companies know that they need to not just meet the needs of their staff today, but also to invest in the workforce of tomorrow.

Many businesses do that through social mobility and access programmes that help to broaden the talent pool they recruit from and diversify their workforces. While that is a necessary part of any talent acquisition plan – and often a part of an organisation’s ESG strategy – it’s not enough to level a playing field that becomes unequal even before that future employee starts school.

Currently around 40% of the attainment gap present at GCSE level is already evident before a child enters reception with the most disadvantaged children starting school around 4.8 months behind their better-off peers.

Decades of evidence suggests that when those disadvantaged children have sustained access to high-quality early education and childcare in the first five years of their life, they are more likely to go onto higher education, have higher employment rates and become higher earners. Put simply, early education and childcare supports children to develop into the citizens and future employees that businesses need and want.

The most progressive employers lead, they are not led. They don’t wait for policy to change or legislation to be enacted. The advent of flexible working has proven that; a policy that was already common practice among many of the UK’s largest employers long before it became an employment right. Now, employers are being called to action in a similar way. This time their role is not just to support parent-employees, but it is to play a vital and leading role in shaping the national conversation about early years.

It’s a conversation that has already begun. In our recent polling, we found that half (49%) of the public believe the first five years shape the rest of our lives, while 67% believe that investing in early education and childcare benefits the whole country, not just parents – up from 59% in 2023. Driving that increase in support over the last year has been a renewed national focus on early education and childcare, bringing the issue to the attention of new audiences.

When we co-founded the Early Education and Childcare Coalition with more than 30 other organisations, it was with the intention of creating a new narrative about early education. We were clear that if change was to happen, the conversation needed to extend beyond parents and the early education sector. It required new actors and a more holistic approach that spoke to the benefits for the whole of society, including business.

So far, that approach has proved successful. Since launching, we’ve worked with some of the UK’s leading business voices to shape our policy and messaging. Their voices have been influential not simply because of who they represent but also because of what they say. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) sits on the Coalition’s steering group and recognises that early education and childcare is a ‘social justice’ issue, not just an economic one, while many other corporate membership bodies have worked with us in support of our mission.

The challenge now for those of us working to build support for early education and, indeed, the whole of the early years, is that it takes time to see the full return on society’s investment in children. In making our case, we need to remind people that the children we’re investing in now will be the doctors that care for us one day; those children will be our community leaders, our bus drivers and neighbours. They will be the employees we hire one day.

As a driver of innovation, creativity and growth, the business community is uniquely positioned to remind all of us that the best investment in human potential is made at the earliest opportunity.