Empowering early years settings to harness the opportunity of nutrition

Neil Leitch, Chief Executive, Early Years Alliance and Chairperson of the EYN Partnership

Nurturing the early years: taking our responsibility seriously   

There is no longer any doubt about the huge impact of the early years on a child’s life

Mounting evidence has resulted in global recognition that the first 1000 days, the time between when a child is conceived and their second birthday, is a critical period. Research has confirmed that this time in a child’s development is more influential on their future health, emotional and social wellbeing than any other period.1

This knowledge has led to widespread support for action to ensure that the education, funding and services are in place so that we can get things right during the early years. The UK's First Cross-Party Children's Manifesto was ‘The 1001 Critical Days Manifesto’, a vision for early years services, originally launched in 2013 and re-launched more recently in December 2016. The Manifesto presents the “moral, scientific and economic case for the importance of the conception to age two period.”2

The growing role of formal childcare

Ofsted figures from March 2017 estimate that there are almost 1.3 million places in early years registered provision.3 A Department of Education survey for the period 2014 to 2015 found that there are more children in some form of childcare at ages three to four years old (93%) than at any other age. 90% of children in this age group spend some time attending a formal childcare provision compared to 40% of those from birth to two years old.4 A lot of variation was seen in the amount of time spent in childcare, but those children attending day nurseries spent an average of 17.9 hours per week in the setting.4 

It is therefore clear that the responsibility to get things right in the early years is increasingly shared between parents and carers, family and early years practitioners with everyone playing a significant role. Factors ranging from families’ socio-economic challenges to working parents increasing need for childcare, can mean that early years settings are increasingly relied upon to support parents and carers in providing young children with what they need to thrive.

The Early Years Alliance is committed to making sure that the impact from early years settings is a positive one.

Fuelling full potential with food

Of the many influential factors in the first years of life, nutrition is proven to have a broad impact on short and long-term health outcomes including the likelihood of becoming an obese child and adult and the risk of developing chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer in later life.5

But poor early years nutrition doesn’t only put a child’s health at stake. Babies are born with 25% of their adult brain developed and by age three this has increased to 80%.1,6 This rapid brain development is accompanied by leaps forward in their cognitive and social development, language and motor skills. It’s astonishing that a child’s developmental score at 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcome at age 26.Nutrition is a critical building block required to fuel this brain development.  Getting the right food is as important as getting enough food, and poor nutrition can decrease a child’s ability to learn, lead to poorer performance in school and ultimately may result in lifetime of lost earning potential.

Partnering for change

Competing priorities can make it difficult for practitioners to provide an optimal environment for children. But we believe that nutrition is one of the fundamentals of children’s wellbeing. However, we appreciate that it can be difficult to commit to building nutritional expertise within a setting, amongst everything else. This is why the Early Years Alliance is so proud to have partnered with the British Nutrition Foundation and Danone Nutricia Early Life Nutrition in creating the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYN Partnership). The governing board of the EYN Partnership is made up of Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of Early Years Alliance, Professor Judith Buttriss, Director General of British Nutrition Foundation and an independent board member, June O'Sullivan, Chief Executive of London Early Years Foundation (LEYF). We have a mission to improve the future outcomes of young children by setting a standard for nutrition practice in early years settings. Drawing upon our collective expertise, the EYN Partnership is working to make this a reality using a model that is designed to be flexible and sensitive to settings' needs and challenges.

Empowering early years practitioners

The unique model used by the EYN Partnership to achieve its goals is close to our heart at the Alliance, as it focuses on working hand in hand with early years practitioners to upskill, engage and empower them.

Registered nutrition professionals support practitioners to develop their nutrition knowledge through training and tailored guidance. The training available equips practitioners with knowledge of the specific nutrition and hydration needs of children in the early years, which differs to nutritional needs at other times of life. The tailored guidance addresses the specific needs of the cohort of children within each setting, which can differ widely.

The knowledge gained is not limited to the building blocks of a good diet. The nutrition professionals share insights on how food and nutrition can be incorporated into the wider learning and development of young children. Food can be used to help children learn colours, textures, motor skills with cutlery and much more. And both the type of food and drink, and the way it is offered, can help children develop healthy habits and positive relationships with food. Effective ways of engaging and sharing knowledge with parents and carers are also covered.

Such a holistic approach delivers longer term benefits for children’s health and wellbeing. It also pays dividends for the setting. It can build the confidence of practitioners, support their career development, increase moral amongst staff and spark inspiration that creates a motivated team. Working towards and achieving the nutritional standards to secure accreditation with the EYN Partnership Quality Mark also demonstrates a serious commitment to delivering high quality nutrition for children which is a fantastic way of building the reputation of your setting.

Investing in EYN Partnership registration is an investment in your staff, an investment in your business and most importantly an investment in the wellbeing of children, for now and for the future.

Social enterprise for equal access

The Early Years Alliance works together with childcare providers and parents to secure access to high quality care for every family. This commitment is reflected in the values of the EYN Partnership. It is a social enterprise determined to provide subsidised services for settings in deprived areas. The goal is that 10% of all settings registered with the EYN Partnership will receive this subsidised access. 49% of children living in the most deprived areas attend some form of formal childcare4 and we believe that deprivation should not be a barrier to children receiving the food they need. We’re excited that the EYN Partnership is harnessing the power of social enterprise to positively influence the future health of a generation and provide every child with the opportunity to reach their full potential.

I would urge settings to seize the opportunity to register with the EYN Partnership. The support offered truly enhances outcomes for children, staff and for business.

Neil Leitch, Chief Executive, Early Years Alliance and Chairperson of the EYN Partnership

As Chief Executive of the largest voluntary sector childcare operator in the UK, Neil champions early intervention, believing all children regardless of background deserve the best possible start in life. In 2014, he was the first winner of the early years magazine Nursery Management Today’s Childcare Power 20.
Prior to joining the Alliance, Neil held several senior posts within the commercial environment and moved into the area of financial underwriting in 1985. Until 2006, he chaired the Finance Industry Standards Association, an organisation committed to protecting the rights of borrowers and raising standards within the second mortgage market.
Neil was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for his work within the early years sector.
Early Years Alliance
The Early Years Alliance is the largest and most representative early years membership organisation in England. A registered educational charity, the Alliance represents 14,000 member settings and supports them to deliver care and learning to over 800,000 families every year.
The Alliance’s vision is a society where every child enjoys the same right and opportunity to develop and learn through play. The Alliance believes families should be placed at the centre of policy-making and works hard to empower parents to become more involved with their child's learning and development. We are committed to further developing the sector's professional status through our training programmes, qualifications and work hard to represent the early years workforce with policy makers. The Alliance’s mission aims to help children to succeed, create childcare that families need and to build learning communities. Our vision and mission underpins our work in every way and at every level. 
1. NCT. 1st 1,000 days new parent support. Why it’s vital. www.nct.org.uk/about-nct/first-1000-days/why-its-vital [Accessed June 2017]
2. The 1001 Critical Days. The importance of the conception to age two period. UK’s First Cross-Party Children’s Manifesto. www.1001criticaldays.co.uk/home [Accessed June 2017]
3. Ofsted. Official Statistics. Childcare providers and inspections as at 31 March 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childcare-providers-and-inspections-as-at-31-march-2017/childcare-providers-and-inspections-as-at-31-march-2017 [Accessed June 2017] )
4. Department of Education. Childcare and early years survey of parents 2014 to 2015. March 2016 www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/516924/SFR09-2016_Childcare_and_Early_Years_Parents_Survey_2014-15_report.pdf.pdf [Accessed June 2017]
5. 1000 days. Why 1000 days. www.thousanddays.org/the-issue/why-1000-days/ [Accessed June 2017]
6. The Urban Child Institute. Data Book 2013. www.urbanchildinstitute.org/resources/publications/data-book-2013/brain-development-conception-to-age-3 [Accessed June 2017]