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Caring for Two year olds: A Government Policy Adrift

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Diana Strauss argues that we need to question recent policy announcements that shape the future of early education and care. 

Child reading bookEarly education policy is adrift: there is to be deregulation of schooling to enable schools to admit two year olds. Schooling for two year olds? What is the rationale for such a radical step?

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


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7 Responses to Caring for Two year olds: A Government Policy Adrift

  1. Lorraine Trusty Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 18:31 #

    I totally agree that to put a child of two years into full time school for 45 hours is totally excessive! However most childminders who work `full time’ work in excess of those hours, for example; drop off 8am collect 6pm. I have always felt that young children under the age of three years should be placed in home based childcare. From three years a combination of both home care and nursery care seems to suit most children that I have taken into my own setting.

    There are good and bad practitioners in nursery settings and childminding settings, regulating them and spot checks ensure the setting is working in a safe and educational environment.

    A good point which I think is valid here is that childminders usually have mixed age groups, which closely mirrors family life and it would be a real shame if this was taken away from young children in favour of a school/classroom environment.

    A very thought provoking article, Thank you.

  2. Diana Strauss Friday, 13 June 2014 at 13:24 #

    As you rightly say, childminders who are good and outstanding provide nurturing and supportive home environments for mixed aged groupings. In addition they invariably find themselves supporting parent/carers too. Trusting and professional relationships are made more human in this context. Parent/carers are less likely to feel judged and are more likely to seek additional help and support in their parenting, precisely because childminders work in excess of 45 hours.
    Childminders frequently make time to engage and listen to parent/carers. It is this very equal interaction that facilitates early help, intervention and support for parents who may be struggling with overwhelming pressures, issues and tensions.

    Thank you for making this equally important point; that school systems and environments may not have the capacity to fulfill this vital role.

  3. Diana Strauss Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 17:08 #

    I am not alone in questioning the government’s policy that advocates school places for two year. On 25th June National Day Nurseries Association launched it’s campaign to challenge cross party proposals to put two year olds in school. http://www.ndna.org.uk/Resources/NDNA/Events%20and%20campaigns/Full%20Childcare%20Challenge%20A5.pdf
    Interestingly, recent political announcements indicate a subtle shift in terminology from “school” places for two year olds, to “nursery-school” places. This begs the question, just how many local authorities have actually kept nursery-schools open? Gov.UK DfE (2014, p.5) National Statistics figures show two year old take up of provision in nursery-school accounts for just 2% of places and a mere 1% in primary school nursery classes.
    So the majority of parents choose what is know as voluntary, independent and private settings (PVI). Young children under the age of three need specialist environments that are planned, led and staffed by exceptional childcare providers, argues NDNA. “Parents need childcare, but sacrificing quality isn’t the way to achieve it.” Deregulation is not the answer and nor is two tier system of teacher training. Early Years Teachers are not being offered a pathway to Qualified Teacher Status. A lesser teacher status could conceivably perpetuate a perceived lower status for some of the youngest children in the English early years provision.

  4. Diana Strauss Monday, 14 July 2014 at 11:32 #

    On Thursday 10th July the Select Committee on Affordable Childcare – sent out a call for evidence to the early education sector. So the government is now going public about a certain lack of coherence in English, early education and care policy.

    My response to Judith Brooke (Clerk Committee on Affordable Childcare, House of Lords) is, ‘Look at the policy and legislation in Scotland, where the values and principles within section 5 ‘Child’s Plan’ and 18 – Wellbeing – of Scottish Government Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 prioritises young children as an early years strategy’.
    The strategy in Scotland is a stark contrasts to the English policy where there is an apparent invisibility of young children. The dominat perspective seems to promote young children as future workers, rather than as children in their own right.

    You too can respond to the call for evidence – engage with this debate and make sure your voice is heard!

    Dear Colleague,

    The House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare has published its call for evidence. The Chairman of the Committee, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, said:

    “Thousands of parents all over the country struggle with decisions about childcare on a daily basis. However, with the Government subsidising childcare through free early education as well as tax credits and childcare vouchers, this isn’t just a matter for individual families. We need to ask, what is the main purpose of the Government subsidising childcare – is it to address inequalities in child development, or to help parents get back to work? And are those aims being met? If not, could the money be spent better in other ways to achieve those outcomes?

    “We look forward to examining these important questions at the heart of the current debate on childcare policy. We would encourage anyone with relevant expertise or experience in these issues to submit evidence.”

    You can find the call for evidence here:

    You can find the press notice here:

    This is a public call for evidence – please pass it on to anyone who might be interested.

    You can follow the progress of the inquiry at http://www.parliament.uk/affordable-childcare

    Judith Brooke
    Committee on Affordable Childcare
    House of Lords
    London SW1A 0PW

    Telephone 020 7219 7516

  5. Melanie Beckett Tuesday, 30 December 2014 at 13:26 #

    I completely agree that it is ridiculous to think the schooling age should be lowered to two years old. All children do develop at different paces and stages however I think that placing a child so young in a classroom is wrong. England’s school starting age currently is five years old yet we are one of the minority countries in Europe to start that young. Most European countries starting age is six. It is even more ludicrous to believe that a two year old would be able to cope in a classroom, away from their parents/ carers and homes for 45 hours a week. Compared to the 15 free hours families are given now for children at that age. The main argument as stated is that disadvantaged children will have a better start in education if they start school earlier. However as you say the government need to bring in a policy that will support young children and their families, how does starting school earlier support the home situation? Mcqullian (1998) conducted a study in the USA on reading stages. She founded that even though some children did start school a year later than others, all children caught up and was at a similar reading level by the age of 8. Therefore does starting school earlier actually narrow down the gap of attainment?

    As you say in the article, quality early years provision cannot be provided as it is too expensive. However it is obvious that a teacher’s salary is much more than an early year’s practice, so surely the costs would be similar, as you would need to hire more teachers and assistants. I believe that families should be given more free hours for nursery, as Montessori says the ages from birth to three years old are the most important for development. It was interesting to read that child minder’s are apparently causing a ‘child care crisis.’ My knowledge of child minders are that they can spend up to nine hours or more a day with the children, however the care is more homely. The child minder generally has a strong relationship with the child and family and is often looked up too. The groups are smaller allowing the relationships between the children to be strong and happy. So I do not understand how this can be seen as a problem? Schooling is more focussed at the moment on targets therefore I do not believe that children at two will get the care that they need in that environment.

  6. Diana Strauss Thursday, 26 February 2015 at 15:48 #

    You have a convincing perspective Melanie and the positive experience of child-minding that your highlight is indeed encouraging. Unfortunately the government policy has reached implementation stage; an evaluation report has been written by Greene et al (2015) and the findings are fascinating.
    The report places process at the centre of the evaluation. Limitations associated with the research appear at the end of the appendices, namely [the sample is] “purposefully selected rather than designed to be representative” (ibid p.84). Furthermore the rationale and interpretation of process is declared to be “what schools considered to have worked well.”
    The data concurs with my original argument that funding is a “clear concern” (ibid p. 84). Worryingly a meagre 51% response rate is recorded in the appendix for the finance survey (ibid p.75). This raises serious considerations regarding a possible lack of transparency. Equally worrying is the information about “additional fees” imposed by ‘school D’, which is one of two Academies in the sample. These fees are identified as “enhanced or top-up rates” (ibid p.76) for so-called “additional needs of the two year olds”. This is of concern because charging additional fees perpetuates a reviled medical, deficit model which has the effect of potentially transforming a developmental stage into a diagnosis. In other words a child at two is beginning to discover their two year old identity. Saying “no” to adults and testing to find where the boundaries are is part of this. It seems as if some adults in sample may have misinterpreted this aspect of development by portraying the ‘discovery of identity and self at two’ in terms that are associated with “delay” and “disorder”. This compounds and reinforces the continuing negative discourse targeting some parents and some early years care providers, such as child-minders, who cannot be trusted with the care and education of two year old children.

    Central to the process question is the term ‘quality’. No definition or interpretation is evident in this report. Provision for two year olds must, according to Cottle and Alexander (2009 p.651) be understood as a “multidimensional, value-laden concept.”

    One highlighted quote from a head teacher in the Greene et al (2015) report links level three qualification to quality provision. This hints at a deeper analysis of quality that has been situated in the working conditions and the terms of employment of early education and care professionals in relation to status and pay. This is important because it impacts on the experiences of two year olds through the provision and this has long been argued by authors such as Moss and Pence (1994) (Eds), Duffy, Osgood (2008) and Nutbrown (2012).
    It has not come as a surprise to read that the schools in the demonstration project are now calling for training from beleaguered and impoverished local authorities. Only now, at this implementation stage, is the Department for Education recommending that schools are provided with useful resources and “a self-evaluation tool with schools, based on research evidence supporting good practice within early years settings, to support schools in developing their provision for two year-olds” Greene et al (2015 p.76).
    In response to this finding it is recommended that local authorities carry out assessment and regular monitoring of training needs for continuing school provision for two year olds. However no mention is made of the current stark reality in education policy that forces Academy status upon schools, deregulates early education and care, and simultaneously decimates local authority services.

    Cottle, M., and Alexander, E.., (2012) ‘Quality in early years settings: government, research and practitioners’ perspectives’ British Educational Research Journal, August 2011, Vol. 38, issue 4, pp.635-654 available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01411926.2011.571661#.VOdVbst0xD8 (Accessed on 26.02.15).
    Greene, V Joshi, P Street, C., Connor, J., Soar, S., (2012) Process evaluation of the two year olds in schools demonstration project Research Report available at http://www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2015/02/2-yr-olds.pdf (accessed on 26.02.15).
    Moss, P. and Pence, A. (1994) (Eds), Valuing quality in early childhood services: new approaches to defining quality. London: Paul Chapman.
    Osgood, J., (2008) Narratives from the nursery: negotiating a professional identity. London: Routledge.
    Nutbrown, C., (2012) Shaking the Foundations of Quality? Why childcare ‘policy’ must not lead to poor quality early education and care available at Shaking the Foundations of Quality ? Why ‘childcare’ policy must not lead to poor-quality early education and care – The New Visions for Education Group (accessed on 26.02.15).

  7. Diana Strauss Monday, 23 March 2015 at 14:11 #

    The headline in today’s press release from Childcare Minister Sam Gyimah, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/all-schools-to-list-childcare-options appears to be divisive.
    Academy, school-based provision for early care and education is heralded as ‘easier for access’ and is apparently a “high-quality option”. This masks the Minister’s attempt to win votes in the run up to the general election and drive a wedge between community provision that ranges from self-employed child-minders to not for profit community pre-schools and full day care nurseries. Government funding for continued improvement across a wide range of early education and care settings is a duty under the existing legal requirement placed upon local authorities to provide information about all types of childcare providers.
    Arguably the specific requirement in The Childcare Act (2006) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/21 to provide information on all childcare is now being contravened. I cannot help thinking that this appears to be unfair competition that favours schools, already in receipt of preferential funding, thus further distorting an increasingly emotive issue? Surely not!