In his speech to launch the second Ofsted Early Years Annual Report, Sir Michael Wilshaw said schools need to do more to attract the poorest children to take up two-year-old places and to work with early years providers in their area.
He added that while local authorities could play a part by ensuring that children’s centres had the right information, it was health visitors who could encourage families to take up the two-year-old offer in a scheme that will begin from September of this year when they will be commissioned by local authorities.
"Health visitors will be aiming to meet every low-income parent with a one-year-old," he said. "With the right focus they can make sure that every parent knows exactly what early education is for, why their child would benefit, and the simple steps they need to take to get their place.
"With local authorities taking responsibility for health visitors from September, this provides an opportunity for local authorities to demonstrate leadership in early years. The local authority must make sure that every health visitor is armed with the knowledge and information about where the best provision is. It is essential that any existing barriers between health and education professionals are removed."
According to Sir Michael, primary schools were the best place for the poorest two-year-olds for the smooth transition from nursery to Reception, because children who were already struggling may find it harder to adjust.
Schools also had more access to specialists, for example to speech and language therapy, behaviour management and parenting support. It was also easier for schools to track children’s development, he said, and well-qualified graduate teachers made a difference too.
Gap between rich & poor attainment not narrowing
Commenting on the report's findings, Joyce Connor, Director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children’s Bureau, said: "Ofsted have confirmed that the quality of early education in England has risen dramatically. This is great news for families, as research tells us that only high-quality early years services will have an impact on children’s early development and later chances in life.
"What is worrying is that the gap in attainment between poor children and their better off peers has not narrowed. Despite the investment in free childcare for disadvantaged two-year olds, many parents are not making use of their entitlement and for families of children with disabilities or special educational needs there remain considerable barriers to accessing provision.
"Our work with schools, nurseries and other providers has shown that it is vital for early years settings to build positive relationships with local families through home visits and open days, and by building on links made through family support services, children’s centres and health visitors. Once these relationships are in place, parents are more likely to make use of free early education, and to recognise the importance of what they do to support their own child’s development and what a setting can also offer."
Eighty-seven per cent of private, voluntary and independent nurseries were judged good or outstanding, and 84 per cent of childminders achieved these grades.
Sir Michael said he was ‘particularly pleased’ to see the rise in childminder grades, which he attributed to Ofsted now not registering childminders until they have been trained in the EYFS.
He also said that it was very likely that improvements in the quality of early years provision had contributed to the rise in Key Stage 1 and 2 results in recent years.
But while the quality of early years provision is at its highest since Ofsted started inspecting it 14 years ago, the gap between the disadvantaged children and their peers has not changed.
According to Ofsted there is still a 20 per cent percentage point gap between the poorest children achieving a good level of development at the age of five and their better-off peers, the same as in 2007.
Fewer than 5,000 schools are taking two-year-olds, with only nine per cent of twos on a funded place in schools. There are 40 local authorities with no disadvantaged two-year-olds in any maintained school as school nurseries have been "colonised by the middle classes" the report concluded.