Analysis: Five steps to better provision

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Is it too late to transform the way Britain thinks about and provides for early childhood education and care? Professor Peter Moss offers a vision.

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With a General Election looming, it's a good time to take stock of what 13 years of New Labour has done for early childhood education and care - ECEC.

There can be no question that this government has changed the ECEC scene by making it a sustained policy priority. After decades of official lack of interest, early childhood has become flavour of the month, year and decade. Yet in retrospect, the last 13 years has also been a period of missed opportunities, too much a case of more of the same and of arrested development.

'More of the same' was the unquestioned continuation of the last Conservative government's reliance on marketisation and a burgeoning private, for-profit sector. Indeed, New Labour boosted the market in ECEC, both for childcare and early education, even going so far as giving local authorities a duty to manage the market.

When did we, as a country, decide that a mix of marketisation and nurseries run as businesses was the way forward on ECEC? Why did New Labour not take some time out, in 1997, to consider the options, provoke debate and arrive at a democratic decision? No doubt it seemed easier at the time just to let things continue as they were, and no doubt markets and businesses appealed to a certain neo-liberal tendency in New Labour. But not pausing to think and deliberate has done ECEC little good, perpetuating a fragmented and semi-privatised system.

But some important policy changes were initiated. Responsibility for all ECEC services was integrated within the education system, replacing the previous split in responsibility between education and health. Children's centres were rediscovered (after a false dawn in the 1970s) and rapidly expanded. But this is where the arrested development comes in. Integration of ECEC took a few additional steps, most notably in regulation and curriculum; then it stalled.

Thirteen years on, we still have an ECEC system split between 'childcare' and 'education'. The split is structural - different access criteria, different funding systems, different costs to parents, different workforces. But it is also conceptual. The Government (and in fairness, most of the country) seems unable to get beyond thinking and talking about 'childcare', as private provision for working parents, and 'nursery education', a public good and part-time entitlement for all threeand four-year olds.

SINGLE SYSTEMS

Compare this with any of the Nordic countries, which for years now have had a fully integrated ECEC system, still within welfare in Denmark and Finland, but now located in education in Iceland, Norway and Sweden. They made their move from a split service some decades ago and now have a universal entitlement to a service for children from at least 12 months of age, a single funding system (funding services, not parents), and a single workforce built around a graduate early years professional (either a teacher or pedagogue) who not only leads centres but works directly with children.

This structural integration is matched by the way the Nordics think about these services as inseparably combining care and education. The Swedish pre-school curriculum, for example, says that the pre-school (the age-integrated centre that nearly all Swedish children attend) 'should be characterised by a pedagogical approach, where care, nurturing and learning form a coherent whole'. As two Swedish researchers put it in a report for UNESCO, 'Parents now expect a holistic pedagogy that includes health care, nurturing and education for their pre-schoolers.'

The Swedish pre-school (or the Norwegian or Finnish) highlight the other instance of the UK's arrested development: the failure to develop children's centres as the basis for all ECEC, over time replacing today's dysfunctional jumble of services that are the legacy of decades of government indifference.

Can anyone seriously argue the case for the current spatter of nurseries, playgroups, nursery classes and so on, each type serving a particular group of children and families for a particular purpose, so ensuring maximum fragmentation and discontinuity? Despite the opening of 3,000-plus children's centres across the country, they have been added to the current hotch-potch, rather than gradually replacing it as part of a phased reshaping of provision.

Is it now too late to redeem the situation? Have we wasted too many years by failing to think for ourselves and neglecting to learn with others who have created fully integrated ECEC systems or are wanting to do so (and I am thinking not only of the Nordics, but countries like Slovenia and New Zealand)? I don't know. But I'd argue that we need to give it one last try - and that will only happen if people and organisations in the field rediscover their voices and bring democracy to bear by asking and debating key questions. Let me offer my reflections in the hope of provoking others.

THE 'RICH' CHILD

To start, we have to decide what is our image of the young child, the early childhood centre and the early childhood worker. My own answers, in a nutshell, are: the 'rich' child, the active learner born with a hundred languages and a citizen with rights; the centre as a key societal institution and public responsibility, a place of encounter for citizens and a collective workshop capable of many purposes and full of possibilities; and the worker as a democratic reflective professional. What would yours be?

Then I'd suggest five policy steps. First, aim for a fully integrated ECEC system by 2025. This means a universal entitlement from the end of a well-paid, year-long parental leave period; an early years profession making up at least half the workforce; and tax-based funding of services, as for schools, with perhaps parental contributions for children attending more than school hours. It also means replacing outdated and divisive concepts like 'childcare' with a holistic concept - perhaps, as in New Zealand, 'early childhood education', where education is understood in its broadest sense as encompassing not only learning but care and general well-being.

Second, over the same period, spread children's centres as the main form of ECEC provision for all children, replacing the current outmoded services, though where feasible, enabling these services to transform into children's centres.

Third, replace markets and competition as fundamental values in ECEC by democracy and collaboration. Fourth, over time, reduce the drive to standardisation and support experimentation, encouraging local projects by local authorities, smaller communities and individual centres. Overall, I would argue, we need less diversity in types of provision, but more diversity in early childhood work, crossing into new disciplines, exploring new theoretical perspectives and trying out different practices.

Finally, the relationship of ECEC to leave policies and compulsory schooling needs sorting. The starting point for this is 12 to 15 months of well-paid parental leave, with incentives for fathers to take a proper share, then entitlement to ECEC services from the end of leave - and not just for children with employed parents, but all children.

At the other end of the age range, we need to implement what the OECD Starting Strong report describes as a 'strong and equal partnership' between ECEC and compulsory school, replacing the current colonial relationship, in which ECEC is very much the junior partner. This means changing, at last, the Victorian decision to start compulsory schooling at age five, moving it up to at least six; it means building up early childhood as a strong sector, able to hold its own with and influence 'big' school; and it means ECEC and school creating 'pedagogical meeting places' where they can explore new and shared understandings of childhood, knowledge, care and learning.

ECEC has always had more than its fair share of imaginative projects and gifted practitioners. There is great potential out there. But to fully realise and harness that potential, we need to get the system finally sorted through completing the integration process. We need to get our image of child, centre and worker right. And we need to have the courage and imagination to rediscover the democratic and experimental roles of education and pre-schools.

Peter Moss is Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the Institute of Education, University of London. His recent paper, 'There are alternatives! Markets and democratic experimentalism in early childhood education and care', is available at http://www.bernardvanleer.org/ publications_results?SearchableText=B-WOP-053

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