Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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An interview with Education Minister Dawn Primarolo

Published By: Early Years Magazine - 01 Dec 2009

Results from the first year of the Early Years Foundation Stage show significant improvement in children’s achievements. You must be very pleased?
They are excellent and it is fantastic that more than 23,000 children in the early years are reaching a good level of achievement and also that we are narrowing the gap in achievement, which means that the lowest achieving children are making improvements as well as others. This is all due to the hard-working early years’ workforce, and I pay tribute to everything they have done.

What needs to happen with EYFS now?
Firstly we aren’t making enough progress with those local authorities who have still to move forward on setting up children’s centres, and we need to work with them to see what can be done. Secondly, we have to look at the achievements of boys. There have been some improvements, but there need to be more. It is all about getting the building blocks of language in place so that when they are ready to move forward they can, and I hope that by the end of the year we will be publishing advice and suggestions for things people can do in this area to encourage boys.

Are you aware that some people are still struggling with EYFS paperwork?
I am open-minded about this, and not ignoring what people say, but research shows us that what we do in the first five years of a child’s life affects what happens in the next 45 years, so we have to be sure we are getting it right and there is just no shortcut to that.

What do you say to people who are finding it difficult to get onto EYFS training courses?
We are moving as fast as we can, but there are always going to be some strains when you are getting something new off the ground. Our target is to have everyone trained by 2015, and if we can do it faster than that we will. But I am also very encouraged by the large demand for training and the fact that we all now seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Are you worried that childminders are currently the least qualified group of early years workers and there is evidence that some are leaving because of EYFS?
Childminders are an amazing resource, and are very often the people who parents prefer to look after their young children. We have to be sensitive to the particular circumstances in which they work, but it is also very important that their high level of professionalism is formally acknowledged. I’m not convinced that large numbers are leaving because of EYFS. I believe it is more complex than that, and that numbers vary for all kinds of reasons. We can support them, and they are certainly not a forgotten or separate part of the workforce.

Demand for full-time care for young children is increasing. Are you concerned that the drive to get parents back to work might be at odds with what is best for children’s early development?
Parents will always make the decisions that they think are right for their own families and we want to help them be able to do this knowing that their children will get the best quality care. I’m not someone who says having your children in care is a bad thing. This is a personal choice -- although in fact many parents have no choice. They have to work.

Where are now with Sure Start?
By next March we will have 3,500 Children’s Centres, one in every community. And that is completely amazing when you think back to where we were in 1997. So now we need to build on that progress, and make sure that Children’s Centres fulfil their potential.

How can we do that?
My vision is of Children’s Centres being at the heart of all the services that we are providing to children and parents whether it’s to do with health, training or support. We know that early intervention works and it is at Children’s Centres that people can notice if there is a family where a parent is in prison, or spot a parent who is isolated and struggling, or who has a drug or alcohol problem. I want to see everyone from police officers to probation officers to health visitors automatically thinking as they go about their work ‘Are there children involved here? What should we be doing for them?’ and then making sure that the right help is offered. You can’t legislate for this, or make it happen, it’s so often simply about someone noticing something and then having a quiet word with somebody else. What you can do is provide the framework and let the best ideas come up from people themselves. Another thing we need to see happen is Children’s Centres becoming a much more active part of the local National Health Service and offering everything from baby clinics through to breast-feeding support and healthy eating programmes.

Do you think these new early years’ services are secure from political or other changes?
The pressure in politics is always to solve problems immediately, or at least in the short term, so the case needs to be continually made that this is all vital work, not some sort of extra that we don’t really need to do. Everyone needs to understand that the young children of today are the decision-makers of tomorrow – and the people who we are all going to depend on in our dotage!

Dawn Primarolo – biography
Born in London in 1954, and grew up in Crawley, Sussex.
Educated at Thomas Bennett Comprehensive in Crawley, Bristol Polytechnic and Bristol University, where she gained a degree in social science and conducted PhD research into women and housing.
Elected Member of Parliament for Bristol South in 1987.
Financial secretary at the Treasury from 1997–1999, then Paymaster General, responsible for overseeing taxation from 1999-2007.
Minister of State for Public Health at the Department of Health, 2007-2009.
Appointed Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families in June 2009, with responsibility for children's well-being, safety, protection and care; family policy; teenage pregnancy strategy; Sure Start, childcare and early education; the Every Child Matters agenda; and extended schools.
Dawn lives in Bristol. She is married with one son, and is personally familiar with the early years’ agenda. She says: “I am a parent, and was for a time a single parent, and now I am a grandparent.”