Diana Strauss argues that we need to question recent policy announcements that shape the future of early education and care.
I believe there are two arguments at play here, the mixing of which masks the overriding imperative. Firstly, free childcare for deprived two year olds implies an attempt to rescue and save young children from their families and homes by removing them to the safety of schools where they will be guaranteed a much better start in life: certainly, the Government perceives this to be a key strategy for tackling what they see as neglectful and harmful parenting. Starting school at aged two will, Elizabeth Truss claims, narrow the gap in attainment in formal schooling. Secondly, the policy is directed towards higher-income parents who are campaigning to reduce their childcare costs: government policies aimed at increased competition and decreased regulation appeal to this group. The combination of these two arguments has obscured the imperative for nurturing early education and child care environments.
One of the most striking changes has been the discourse surrounding Early Years policy. Early Years providers such as child-minders are discussed in a negative and pejorative tone which implies that they are to blame for the ‘childcare crisis’. Truss has singled out ‘red tape’ and inflexible childcare provision being to blame. Ofsted also echo the negative discourse directed towards child-minders and actively promote the deregulation of schools.
However, deregulation flies in the face of the government’s own funding criteria for Early Years providers: it states that only settings judged by Ofsted to be Good or Outstanding can take disadvantaged two year olds. Rutter, Evans and Singler argue that insufficient numbers of settings reaching good enough standards of care exist. Policy action is needed to support early years providers to achieve good and outstanding judgements across the board. However, quality has been steadily improving, albeit slowly, with Ofsted reports showing 78% of settings have achieved Good to Outstanding judgements. Many child-minders and Early Years nursery practitioners are acutely aware that they need highly advanced knowledge, skills, additional resources and suitable environments to provide high quality care and early education.
Professionals who have a vision and want to provide genuinely high quality early education environments, supporting child development through a pedagogy of play, are not persuaded by the Government agenda (see for example Moyles, Adams, and Musgrove 2003; Goouch, 2010). Furthermore, analysis from the Daycare Trust shows that child-minders are leaving the profession because increasing demands continue to spiral and they cannot afford to stay in childcare.
Yet this is happening at the same time as Truss decries the high cost to parents.
Quality early years provision cannot be provided cheaply because it is expensive to fund the necessary adult ratios and the required intensive support – it remains expensive because public funding is not covering the actual cost.
It must also be urgently considered whether attempts to reduce ‘red-tape’ and costs could make early years and childcare settings less safe. We should refocus the debate by examining the quality of provision, including how regulation carried out by Ofsted is necessary to ensure the safety of babies and young children. It provides a framework that promotes high standards in the quality of care. A parallel here can be drawn with current issues in end of life, as opposed to start of life, care. Can Liz Truss seriously advocate removing current minimum standards for our youngest members of society at a time when care for the eldest is being investigated as possibly being inadequate, and in the worst scenarios, dehumanising and degrading?
Government plans to extend the school day give further priority to political agendas which are aimed at pleasing parents (voters) rather than addressing the needs of very young children. Forty five hours a week in school is excessive for two year olds and much longer than many parents spend in the workplace; unless you happen to be working in childcare of course!
I believe that de-regulation is not the solution and neither indeed is the demand led ideology upon which it is based, something that is ‘antithetical to long-term investment in childcare’ (p.37). A possible way forward would be a full policy review to clarify all the issues and tensions, and to prevent further policy drift which is adding to the layers of multiple disadvantage for a significant number of young children and their families. In addition, a cross-party commitment that is dedicated to future investment in strategic and practical initiatives may genuinely support babies, young children, their families and schools. Real value for money could be demonstrated in government funding to build a society for future generations that is not fighting for survival but fighting for equality, social justice and compassion for those communities and families who do not enjoy the advantages of the wealthy.
Goouch, K., (2010), Understanding playful pedagogies, play spaces and play narratives, An International Research Journal, 28:1, 93-102, DOI: 10.1080/09575140701815136:
Moyles, J., Adams S., and Musgrove, A., (2003), Early years practitioners’ understanding of pedagogical effectiveness: Defining and managing effective pedagogy, Education 3-13, 30: 3, 9 — 18: DOI: 10.1080/03004270285200291:
Ofsted (2014), Ofsted Early Years Annual Report 2012/13