The pace of change within the early years and childcare sector looks set to continue in 2004. In England, the first of the Government's planned Children's Centres will come into being. More Neighbourhood Nurseries will open their doors, and the first of the extended schools will start to take on the wider role envisioned in the Green Paper Every Child Matters.
The private sector and childcare voucher providers will get geared up for the long-awaited tax breaks that will start in April 2005 and, it is hoped, make childcare more affordable to a greater number of parents.
There will be an increased focus on the quality of provision for under-threes, with a new training programme being rolled out in the new year, and more practitioners will embark on the new APEL (Accreditation of Prior Experience and Learning) qualification for a Level 3 Certificate in work with children.
But will this latest round of changes be enough to satisfy the demands, needs and wishes of the sector? We asked a cross-section of providers, practitioners and interested parties to have their say.
Julia Manning-Morton Senior lecturer in early childhood studies, London Metropolitan University
This year, the needs of nought to three-year-olds have been put on the agenda. In 2004, I look forward to practitioners being able to meet those needs through training and support that effectively addresses the emotional content of their work. Paid non-contact time for nought-to-three practitioners would help with developing the necessary reflective skills, and hopefully, as the importance of the practitioner's role is recognised, improvements in pay and conditions will follow.
Debra Shipley Labour MP
To help tackle obesity and diabetes, I want advertisements for unhealthy foods targeted at young children and infants banned during children's television times. I would also like to see the Sure Start scheme expanded so that more children can benefit from linked early education, childcare, health, and family support services. On a wider scale, I wish to see a Europe-wide vetting system for childcare workers to ensure that convicted child abusers are unable to gain access to work with children by moving between European states.
My final wish for 2004 is to see a revised version of child contact arrangements in cases of domestic violence, to ensure that children are not put at risk from abusive parents.
Josephine London Heinemann National Childcare Student of the Year, 2003, and learning support assistant at West Hill Primary, Dartford
As a newly qualified practitioner in my first job, I have realised how often I draw upon my life experiences and parental responsibilities to fulfil many aspects of the role. Throughout my training, I was fortunate enough to have a varied range of work placements, along with all the support and help I needed. But I often think about school leavers in the workplace and how much more support and back-up they may need while studying, particularly in terms of work experience. This, I believe, is an essential ingredient for a career with children.
Carol Ball Chair of Unison Scotland's nursery nurses working party
I want nursery workers to be recognised for their professional status in the workforce. This means giving them a structured career path so they can progress in their chosen profession - and a remuneration package to match.
I want the base end of a nursery nurse's salary to increase from 13,000 to 18,000, in line with the starting salary of a teacher in Scotland.
John Woodward Busy Bees director
Since the Government announced the launch of non-taxable childcare vouchers, the response from companies has been huge. Although the deductions will not come into force until 2005, we expect to see a huge uptake in 2004 because companies are still able to benefit from National Insurance exemptions on the vouchers. This announcement gives the sector greater stability.
I hope partnerships between the maintained and private sectors will be developed, particularly school sites. The funding of training to support staff needs to be rationalised if we are to be serious about professional development. I would wish to see a Government initiative to help nursery providers improve the pay of staff in the sector.
Joan Bailey Lifetime Achievement award-winner at the Excellence in Childcare Awards
2003 and founding member of Peterlee Out-of-school Club Applying for charitable funding each year is an ongoing battle. I wish that more funding was available for all types of childcare services all over the country and I also wish that out-of-school clubs had access to a more solid funding structure.
Russell Norman Chief executive, Howgill Family Centre, Cumbria
Every Child Matters provides an exciting opportunity for all involved in the protection and development of children to develop systems and practices which will match the aspiration for excellence in children's services.
Organisational commitment to innovation and change, implementing the learning from programmes such as Sure Start and Early Excellence, with an inter-disciplinary workforce, can only lead to better outcomes for children.
The public, private and community sectors have been given a challenge; I hope we can all respond.
Ann Abd-El-Kader Head of St Anne's Nursery School, Kensington, London
I would like to see more facilities for children to explore and play outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, nursery schools would benefit from an on-site health visitor, speech therapist, counsellor, social worker and special needs teacher. I also think the quality of the play and teaching would improve if there were a ratio of one adult to every four children.
Other things I'd like to see are science and technology rooms for children, a computer suite for parents, touch sensor screens and interactive whiteboards in all classrooms and video conferencing facilities.
Deborah Albon Senior lecturer in early childhood studies, London Metropolitan University
I'm looking forward to an independent voice for children through a children's commissioner, as proposed in Every Child Matters. On a day-to-day practitioner level, I'd like to see more work done towards really incorporating children's wishes and ideas into what we do - a respectful approach to working with young children and their families.
Jacqui Cousins Author of Listening to Four-Year- Olds, and NCB and freelance family support worker and consultant
Thanks to Jane Davidson, a minister of education who listens, I have been able to help change some of the day-to-day realities for the children who live in areas of social disadvantage in Wales. I would like to see England's early years sector listened to and encouraged. I think it should be acknowledged that young children's care and education should be measured more in terms of emotional 'cost effectiveness' than by short-term monetary goals and false 'quick fixes'.
Ken Livingstone Mayor of London
Providing more high-quality, affordable childcare is hugely important to women and children across London. The London Childcare Strategy will increase the availability of low-cost, high-quality childcare across the capital, and I recently announced a 3.125m funding package to provide 1,700 new and affordable childcare places under the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative.
I have also put in a range of measures, effective from January 2004, to ensure that people - particularly women on benefits - are not worse off when they take a job. For example, they will receive a 30 per cent discount on travel costs for the first six months back in work, while children under the age of 11 will travel free on buses. Over the next year, I hope we will begin to see these policies pay off, with more mothers and children benefiting from improved childcare provision in the capital. NW