Calls for a ‘revolution’ in Leeds pre-school provision to save city’s ‘lost children’

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CAMPAIGNERS are calling for a “revolution” in pre-school provision to help thousands of Leeds children who are left struggling to play catch-up from the day they arrive at the school gates.

As reported in the YEP yesterday, research across the city has found increasing numbers of youngsters turning up to school still wearing nappies, unable to eat with a knife and fork and many unable to speak English, leading to massive pressure on teachers forced to be “trainers not teachers”.

Leeds was also ranked last out of 152 local authorities in a new report on the early years foundation stage ‘low achievers gap’, eight per cent behind the national average.

Imran Hussain, head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, said a “significant proportion” of youngsters with delayed development will be from deprived homes, and the findings were “incredibly worrying for Leeds”. “We need to be bringing the best potential out of every child,” he said. “We need much more help for expectant parents and new parents, as well as much better early years provision.”

He said Government cuts were affecting essential support services like SureStart or English courses for parents with other first languages, adding that the Coalition’s earlier promises on early-years policy had so far not led to “any revolution in provision”.

The campaign group is urging the authorities to follow the Nordic countries in having “universal high quality pre-school care and education”. “It will take significant investment, but the returns will be worth it if we can stop so many of our children getting left behind,” he said.

Conservative councillor Alan Lamb, Leeds council’s shadow children’s services lead, said: “Being ranked last nationally in any category is not acceptable. Early Years is a time when children learn valuable habits, and can also be a vital period for interventions that can improve results as a child goes through the education system. To be so far behind the other major cities is deeply worrying.” He said the council has “a strong influence” over early-years services and urged leaders to take “urgent steps”.

Council bosses have already launched an action plan to tackle the issue head-on, and promised an “absolute focus” on the zero to five age group.

Coun Judith Blake, the council’s children’s services lead, said the department has now put together a raft of measures.

Key to this, she said, was the council’s decision to keep all of its children’s centres open at a time when many other major cities are closing theirs.

The new action plan includes an ‘Early Start’ programme working with health staff and targeting youngsters aged zero to two.

“It’s an enormous challenge, but we are determined,” she said.

Tony Burdin, chief executive of Sheffield Mutual Friendly Society

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