Michael Gove's tenure as education secretary has often divided opinion, but one area where the Conservative MP has garnered praise from both sides is in his attitude to narrowing the achievement gap of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Last month, the government revealed that it was dramatically expanding its early years education entitlement, meaning that by next year about 150,000 two-year-olds from poorer families will become entitled to receive 15 hours of free early education each week.
This revolution in nursery schools is designed to make children from disadvantaged backgrounds more equipped to begin primary school, while also providing their parents with the flexibility needed to work.
A large body of evidence shows how important early years education can be to academic performance in later life, and the Department for Education (DfE) is aiming to address this by providing free nursery school teaching for two-year-olds using the same criteria used to determine free school meals qualification.
In order to drive up standards in early years education, the DfE instructed Professor Cathy Nutbrown to undertake a review of the sector and its qualifications system in October last year. Her report has been widely welcomed, with unions praising the "constructive" suggestions. 'Foundations for Quality'
Publishing the findings of her Review of Early Education and Childcare Qualifications last week (June 19th), Prof Nutbrown set out a range of recommendations which she says will drive up standards in the sector, help improve teaching quality and make the early years more attractive as a teaching job.
Entitled 'Foundations for Quality', her report urges the government to make childcare qualifications more rigorous and demanding, with a heightened focus on child development. The report also calls on the delivery of the courses to be improved so that trainees receive greater support from people with hands-on experience.
In addition to this, Prof Nutbrown has suggested the creation of a new Early Years Professional Status in a bid to attract more graduates and trained teachers to the sector. 'Inspirational examples of dedicated staff'
Having started her career as a teacher of young children before moving into academia, the Sheffield University professor of education carried out more than seven months of research and revealed that during that time she witnessed "many inspirational examples of dedicated staff providing the best environment for playing and learning".
However, while recognising the immense benefits that this can have for young children at the very beginning of their education, she said that more children need to benefit from it.
"Every child deserves excellent early education and care, and every parent should be confident that their child is getting the best," Prof Nutbrown said. "Early education and care needs to support babies' and young children's all round well being and development.
"That is why I want the workforce to really understand child development, the importance of play, and have good English and maths skills."
To do this, it is essential that those teaching and caring for young children are themselves given a high quality education so that they have the skills, knowledge, understanding and experience necessary to mean that the government's investment in early years is as fruitful as possible.
"Working in the early years sector should be a recognised and fulfilling career that attracts the best women and men," she added. 'A careful and measured look'
While the government is now assessing the merits of the recommendations, children's minister Sarah Teather welcomed the "thoughtful and thorough report" for its "careful and measured" assessment of the sector.
"This government wants the best for our young people," Ms Teather said. "It is clear that if children are to have the best start in life, then they must have excellent early education.
"The evidence that disadvantaged children particularly benefit from quality early education is compelling."
Unions including the National Association of Head Teachers gave their backing to the report, while the charity 4Children also threw its weight behind Prof Nutbrown's suggestions and praised the government for its commitment to the sector.
How the government responds to the review remains to be seen, but with prime minister David Cameron announcing last week that he is assessing how to reduce the childcare burden on families, the onus is positive.
Posted by Charlotte Michaels