Early days in the early years hot seat
Monday, September 8, 2014
In his first interview since taking up the role of childcare and education minister, Sam Gyimah talks to Catherine Gaunt about some of the big issues affecting the sector right now.
When the Prime Minister reshuffled the ministerial pack back in July, the sector was initially left wondering about the scope of the childcare role. While Sam Gyimah, the Conservative MP for East Surrey, claimed the childcare job on Twitter, further clarification of his responsibilities from the Department for Education (DfE) was not immediately forthcoming.
So with childcare set to be an important election topic, was there any wrangling between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats over the childcare remit, as some speculated?
'Absolutely not,' Gyimah says. 'I knew from the time I was appointed what I was going to do. And when I spoke to the Prime Minister, it's something I was very much looking forward to.'
As a first-time father, the new minister is also keen to stress his own interest in early years. 'From my personal perspective, I'm kind of living the early years, given that we have a baby. We've got a four-month-old son.'
One of Gyimah's first tasks was to deal with the storm of controversy over the GCSE requirements for apprenticeships.
He says he hopes his decision to delay the need for GCSE grade C maths and English for those starting Early Years Educator apprenticeships is a sign of his intention to listen to a sector that has, of late, often felt ignored.
'On the GCSE requirements, I felt that there had been enough time, because the policy had been in circulation for over a year. But we said: for the first year the requirement is on exit, then it's on entry. So if you want to answer the question, "How do I approach things?", that's an indicator.'
He adds, 'I think the more important point is that there are a lot of hard working, committed people in the early years sector in the UK with great ideas. I wouldn't always agree with them, but I'm very open to having dialogue and debate. Dialogue, debate, evidence, and we take it from there. So long as we all agree that actually what we're here to do is to help parents provide the best start for their children. That's ultimately where I want to get to.'
We meet shortly after education secretary Nicky Morgan's announcement, in the wake of the 'Trojan Horse' affair, that early years settings will be required to teach 'British values' - learning right from wrong, learning to take turns and share, and challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes.
Nursery World has received many comments from early years practitioners who feel the EYFS already provides this.
'There is no place and should be no place for extremism in British schools and that includes the early years setting,' Gyimah says. 'The announcement was to articulate this, that British values as defined in the Prevent strategy - tolerance, individual liberty, democracy, mutual respect and the rule of law - should be reflected in early years settings.
'When you look at the EYFS, some of that is happening already. But it was important, given what happened in Birmingham, to outline what is expected. It has to be done in an age-appropriate way, in terms of how you teach democracy to two-year-olds.
'The important message is that there is no place for extremism in early years and lots of (settings) are doing tolerance and mutual respect already. So this formalises it and makes it crystal clear.'
He adds, 'It's worth highlighting that creationism is a part of it. You can't teach creationism in schools as scientific fact, so it isn't just about extremism.'
As the funded places scheme extends to 40 per cent of two-year-olds, the DfE has launched an advertising campaign targeting those areas in the country where take-up is low.
But what about the shortage of places for twos?
Gyimah acknowledges it is 'a big step', and stresses that before 2010 there was no free entitlement for twos.
'We started at 20 per cent, we've gone up to 40 per cent - and it is a big commitment, especially as this is one of the best ways of helping parents, particularly the less well-off, to give their children the best start in life.
'Of course, once you have a policy like this you have got to make sure there is the take-up, because local authorities do have a statutory duty to provide places. When the scheme was launched there was £100m in capital funding to help local authorities increase the availability of the places, but you also have to make parents aware there is this fantastic new offer that is not just for parents who want to enter the labour market but that even stay-at-home parents can access up to 15 hours, and that it can make a tremendous difference to their children's development. That's what our marketing campaign is about.
'There are some in the sector that say that going from 20 per cent to 40 per cent (having) 15 hours is too far too fast, and some saying they want children to have more hours. I visited a day nursery yesterday where they said they actually want more hours, not because of funding but because they feel they could do more with children if the children were there for more than 15 hours. It makes me feel we've got it about right.'
The minister appears surprised when I ask how he proposes to tackle the issue of under-funding in the sector, with many private and voluntary nurseries struggling. He cites departmental data he has seen - that two-year-olds are funded at £5.09 per child per hour and that the average for three and fours is £4.26, and quotes the figure from the Family and Childcare Trust that the average cost of childcare for the country is £4.05.
'Evidence that I'm getting doesn't tell me there's under-funding. There might be some situations in the margins I'm not aware of. I'm happy to look at it if there is hard data. The evidence I'm seeing, not from this department but from an independent organisation, is that we're funding above the national average.'
But some early years settings still feel that local authorities are not passing on the full funding. 'If there's a nursery that is having difficulties with its local authority by all means write to me and I'll look into it,' he says.
On the drive for more two-year-old provision on schools, he says, 'What we've got and what we should continue to encourage is a very diverse early years sector, in which you've got PVIs and schools all playing a part.
'I'm not saying I have a preference for one type of provider of early years education over another, but I certainly want more childcare available and accessible to parents. To achieve that it would be incredibly helpful if schools that currently take three- and four-year-olds were able to take two-year-olds as well.
'But also I would like schools to open nurseries where they see it is possible to do so, in the same way that I would like to see more childminders in the industry.
'So I don't see a tension - we want more childcare places available for parents to access and wherever we can get organisations to do so we will do what we can as a Government to make sure it is possible.'
Parents don't differentiate between different types of provider, he argues, so providers need to work in partnership so parents can create a solution that suits them.
'Some schools complain about the quality of children they're getting in the Reception year - in that case, work with the nurseries,' Gyimah says.
What about those who say the school environment is not right for twos?
'I don't think anyone is suggesting for a second that two-year-olds should be sitting behind desks learning their ten times table. The way two-year-olds learn is very different to how four-year-olds learn, which is very different to the way ten-year-olds learn. Obviously two-year-olds will learn a lot more from play, and we have the EYFS that underpins how children learn anyway.
'But one of the big issues we've got is making childcare more affordable, so if you've got a school where part of the building is not utilised that could be a way of having affordable childcare in that area. Nobody is saying we want all two-year-olds in school, but you've got nurseries in some Government buildings and no one says you can't. You can turn a building into an age-appropriate place to study.'
Like workplace nurseries? 'Yes. Exactly.'
The minister says he is 'positively encouraged' by those childminder agencies that are starting up, and that it is 'early days' but there are some 'very good ideas'. He mentions one agency that will combine childminders with a nursery, offering overnight care for parents working shifts.
'That kind of umbrella role is something that neither a childminder nor a nursery could perform themselves, but where you have an agency servicing an area they can stitch together a solution for parents.
'What you will see as this beds in is almost like you had with academies and free schools, that this is an enabling power - you will see entrepreneurs, people using this to stitch together a solution for parents.
'That should be the test with all these things: are we providing a solution that helps parents have affordable, quality childcare? I think there is a lot of scope for this to happen.'
But, I suggest, the plans don't seem to have taken off in the way the Government might have hoped.
'It came in on 1 September and we're already pronouncing a verdict on the policy,' he says. 'Let's give it time.
It's new, it's flexible and I think we'll see different models in different areas.'
'There are a lot of entrepreneurial people in the sector, so let's see what they can do with this. This is breaking down walls. I think there is a lot of scope for innovation in the way regulations are drafted, while providing support for new and existing childminders. Quality assurance being one example.'
Sam Gyimah was elected to parliament as MP for East Surrey in 2010. He was appointed childcare and education minister in July, and is also parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office.
Previously, he was Government Whip and Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, and Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron from 2012 to 2013.
On the role good childcare has played in his own early life, he says, 'My parents split up when I was very young. We moved to Ghana. My mother's a nurse and she spent an awful lot of time juggling her shifts with trying to read to me. I hated it at the time because I was about four years old and wanted to play.
'Now I appreciate how important that kind of interaction is. Working in this sector and working to support our policies to especially help the less well-off is something I'm very passionate about. It's what I wanted to do, and I'm glad that I've got the opportunity.'