Early childhood policies - Recycling the past

Current intervention strategies to tackle social inequality aren't working - so perhaps it is time for a complete rethink of our approach to early childhood services, argues Helen Penn.

Recently, there have been two posh early childhood events. The first was held at the House of Commons. The lively and indefatigable chairman of the Education Select Committee, Tory MP Graham Stuart, launched Early Education's new Maintained Nursery Schools: the state of play report.

The second event was held at the Nuffield Foundation, where the House of Lord's Affordable Childcare Committee chairman Lord Sutherland introduced the Nuffield Foundation's new report, Early Years Education and Childcare. Delectable food was provided at both events - no food bank leftovers here - but what very stale policies!

The nursery schools report emphasised the very high standard of education provided by state maintained nursery schools, and the fact they have been historically concerned with deprived children. Nursery schools are under threat - 100 or so closed down in the past few years and there are only 418 left. No disputing the quality of these nursery schools or their deprived catchments. But the answer? Save the remaining schools, preserve the status of the head teachers, and make them teaching beacons for everyone else in the sector.

The Lords Affordable Childcare report, also published recently, pointed out the importance of quality in interventions for deprived children. The answer? Provide more money for the private sector to pay for more teachers.

The Nuffield report highlighted the gaps in existing evidence about early education and care. The answer? Address deprivation by providing more research on child development and social mobility in early childhood.

As journalist Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian, these weighty reports indicate 'a complete myopia around what deprivation is: hunger, homelessness and poor housing, feelings of inferiority and hopelessness'.

The very idea of early childhood intervention presupposes a quick fix - a dose of quality education will somehow cure social inequality and the misery that follows from it. But the dose of intervention currently being prescribed reinforces inequality. It can't succeed even with its miserably limited aim.

There are many different kinds of providers, charging prices that poor parents find astronomical. The providers in the poorest areas tend to operate from the poorest premises - for example, tiny terrace houses, empty shop fronts or disused industrial buildings; dingy cramped accommodation, with artificial light and no outside spaces, with a preponderance of young, inadequately trained staff. There are dozens of these places in my locality alone.

Almost all of these places have placards or banners outside offering 'free nursery education'. Eighty per cent of the current offer for deprived two-year-olds is provided in the private sector. The promises from the main political parties to increase the number of hours for this kind of 'education' is like offering a deal to imprison young children. Why don't politicians and policy wonks confront the sheer awfulness of much of the care and education we offer to the poorest children, here and now, in front of our eyes?

Do we really need, as the Nuffield report claims, more research to expose it? The research findings are already crystal clear: poor quality care and education harms poor children, and social class is the most powerful determinant of subsequent education achievement. What is the point of any more tinkering or adjustments to a very inadequate and unequal system of early education and care?

Truly confronting poverty and recognising what is routinely on offer to poor children would mean a fundamental rethink of our highly fragmented, very costly and inefficient system of early education and care. Not that such rethinking need be difficult. It means challenging the very notion of 'intervention' - the idea that fundamental problems of inequality and poverty can be dealt with piecemeal and in isolation, by targeting families and children who are already the victims of a series of bad and unfair policies on taxation, housing, unemployment and welfare benefits which have caused or contributed to their poverty.

There has been lots of international discussion on what constitutes a good early education and care system. The OECD Family Database, and the EU Eurydice data provide top-class documentation on early education and care. They have, over the past 15 years, provided careful analyses on the relationship between universal comprehensive early education and care provision and social equality. They have identified key attributes of coherent and efficient early years policy and how it dovetails with the education system. Many countries enjoy successfully integrated, publicly funded universal education and care provision. Decent early years education and care can be redistributive and redress inequality, instead of, as in the UK, exacerbating it.

This does not mean that all provision for early years has to be bog standard and state provided. It does mean, however, that there should be coherent funding and training strategies across care and education, and that there should be generous standards for provision (no more nurseries, ever, without stimulating and adequate outside space for children). It means giving parents a democratic voice in the services they use - not as welfare recipients or inadequate parents, not as individual consumers who negotiate all arrangements privately just for their own children, never mind anyone else's. It means a much more co-operative and collective vision of what a service for children might offer.

The House of Lords committee may think the solution is more carefully controlled funding of the private sector. One of the consequences of such heavy reliance on the private sector, however, is that we have abandoned all such ambitions for democratic governance in the pre-school sector, in favour of private purchasing arrangements.

We use a private business model, in which owners control expenditure and policy and have no obligation to disclose or be accountable to parents for what they do. The only remedy a parent has is to remove their child, and who would risk losing a precious place? What happens when a private nursery closes or is taken over? Who benefits from the sale of premises, and pockets the money? Legislation insists on governors and governing bodies in schools to maintain accountability, but abandons such precepts for young children, when it is arguably most needed.

We have in the UK some wonderful nursery schools, with long and treasured histories. Nursery schools may potentially offer a very good model, but they can't be developed in isolation from the rest of the sector, as a kind of high-end speciality. We have to argue for a broader, fairer system, one which adopts the same principles and same standards for all children - quality teaching, quality premises, quality resources and democratic control and transparency; care and education, equally available to all children as of right - in nursery schools, classes, and if possible, in the private sector.

Graham Stuart advised those campaigning for good early years provision to go on poking and prodding and shouting at hidebound politicians. More research might give us new insights, but basically we cannot avoid ideological discussion. Do we accept the unfair status quo or not? What does a fairer system look like? Do we want our system to perpetuate the entrenched divides between care and education, health and welfare, public and private? Do we have to target the poor and agree to this converse, letting the rich buy their way out of trouble? Or can we recognise our failures and our injustices, shrug off our damaging policies, and after 50 years or so of muffing it, agree to move ahead?

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