Last November, in his speech outlining foreign policy at London's Guildhall, Prime Minister David Cameron depicted a graphic image of an international struggle to gain advantage in world markets. 'There is a global race out there to win jobs for Britain,' he said. 'It is a moment of reckoning for every country. Sink or swim. Do or decline.'
Two months later, this cut and thrust appeared in the plans for young children's experiences in early childhood provision, when the proposals for reform introduced More Great Childcare as 'vital to ensuring we can compete in the global race'. And while plans announced last week for More Affordable Childcare no longer refer specifically to this 'race', it remains evident in the vision of 'world-class childcare' in a 'challenging global environment'.
Both documents aim for 'high-quality' childcare, and the policies stated in or suggested by them - along with 'new' ideas such as benchmarking children on entry to reception - reveal the Government's chosen route for providing it. But 'quality' is a slippery term, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind'. This leaves the field open for 'quality' to be pretty much whatever you fancy. So how do key early years experts define 'quality' in early childhood provision?
'All the evidence points to creating a situation where young children have a good time in the here and now and play, because at this age play is learning,' says Eva Lloyd, reader in Early Childhood at the University of East London. 'Apart from that, they need lots of interactions with adults and peers, and so lots of activities that enable staff to promote and support the social and emotional aspects of their experience.'
Chris Pascal, director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, agrees that interactions are key. 'Quality is about a child entering a relationship with some warm, nurturing, skilled adults in an environment where they can fulfil their potential and feel part of a group,' she says.
She explains that staff who see children as individuals, give them dignity and believe in their potential are at the heart of quality provision - 'The environment is then the place and space that enables and enhances these relationships.'
Neither More Great Childcare nor More Affordable Childcare discuss the value of children's relationships, and they do not provide an alternative definition for the quality they call for. A request to education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss for a definition to inform this article heeded no response. So, with no clarity from policymakers, what do early years experts think the Government means by 'high quality' in childcare?
'I have no idea,' says Ms Lloyd, who was co-chair of the early education co-production group that worked closely with Government on policy in the Coalition's first years. 'More Great Childcare is such an appalling document, with such disingenuous use of international statistics, that it's impossible to know what they mean by "quality".'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, and Eva Lloyd's co-chair on the early education co-production group, expresses similar frustration. 'They have confused the idea of "quality" with the need to reduce parental costs,' he explains. 'As a result, the lines have been blurred. Free-flow play (described as 'not required' in More Affordable Childcare) means that you have to watch and interact with children. It's intensive, and that relates to cost.'
Cost is indeed central for the Government. More Affordable Childcare says that expensive provision keeps too many parents at home, and More Great Childcare makes a direct link between success in the 'global race' and parents going to work. But with cost a key defining aspect of 'quality', intensive professional support for children's exploration around an interesting space and their development through nurturing and mutual relationships - their learning under the core principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage - cannot feature high in the Government's aspirations. So it is little surprise that the initial collaboration between early years and Government under then childcare and families minister Sarah Teather - which, according to Ms Lloyd, had a 'welcome and sincere emphasis on listening to the sector' - had to go.
'Now,' says Mr Leitch, 'there is no formal method of consultation with the Government.'
In such an atmosphere, it is worth investigating the grounds on which the Government has based its policy choices for saving money. Why, for instance, was Ms Truss so keen on elements of the French and Dutch systems in More Great Childcare?
'Elizabeth Truss was interested in the Netherlands before she became minister,' says Ms Lloyd. 'She wrote a report for the think-tank CentreForum about how to bring childcare costs down.' In it, a table showed childminder agencies as intermediaries between childminders and regulators, implying that the regulators do not carry out costly individual inspections - an implication that Ms Lloyd says was wrong.
'When I pointed out to Ms Truss that both agencies and childminders are subject to regulation and inspection by public health agencies acting on behalf of the local authorities, she told me that it didn't matter and chose to use her own interpretation,' she adds.
Such 'disingenuousness' about the wider policy context in other countries seems to characterise the choice of international models for early childhood provision. 'OECD statistics can make it look as if our investment is particularly high, but we are in fact about mid-way,' says Ms Pascal. 'We look like we pay more than France and the Netherlands but in these countries business and health contribute money.' This information is ignored by the Government. 'We must count it in,' says Ms Pascal. 'By comparison, we offload a lot on parents.'
If the claims of lower-cost provision in other countries are unconvincing, is it possible that policy choices are influenced by the Government's beliefs? Did the French and Dutch systems suggest themselves for ideological reasons?
'I suspect they appeal because they are, respectively, highly ordered and highly marketised,' says Peter Moss, Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood at the Thomas Coram Research Unit. 'Successive governments have imposed economistic thinking on early childhood provision. This is becoming more pronounced. There is an even stronger commitment to a combination of marketisation, with markets assumed to be the best way to provide services, and managerialism, with a strong control over what these services should do.'
And, of course, the marketisation of early childhood provision brings us back to that 'global race'. If we ignore the warnings over misrepresentation of financing in other countries, perhaps lower-cost childcare will enable more parents to work and so, in the terms laid out in More Affordable Childcare, further Britain's position in the race. But if cheaper provision means less intensive adult:child relationships in formal settings, and if more control means testing young children's ability to count a few cats, will the Government's policies deliver success in the 'global race' for the adults that our young children will become?
'So much information out there shows that better outcomes and social mobility for disadvantaged families cost more, not less,' says Ms Pascal, who co-authored research comparing international childcare systems published last week by the Department for Education. 'There is no cheap system, especially in an unequal society like our own.'
'There is no evidence either that if you push children fast they will succeed,' says Ms Lloyd, 'except in Pacific Rim countries, and their provision is highly privatised.'
Aspiring to compete with China's dominance of the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings for attainment at age 15 is irrelevant for other reasons, says Ms Pascal. 'Cultural difference is crucial. In China, children's obedience is highly valued and so whole-class pedagogy will work. If you try to impose that on a society that values creativity, it won't work.' But even in China, she says, they are reducing class sizes and increasing ratios - a pattern observable across the world.
SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
Ms Lloyd returns to the importance of young children's experiences now for their success in the future. 'First you create the opportunities for young children to investigate and support their social and emotional experiences, then this contributes to later positive outcomes,' she says.
So even in relation to its own ambitions for success in the 'global race', the Government's plans for early childhood provision appear muddle-headed, with too many unheeded variables involved to argue for imposing this or that model on the UK.
Sharon Hodgson, shadow minister for children and families, suggests a different policy direction may be possible under Labour. 'I agree that childcare is fundamental to the UK's economic performance relative to other countries,' she says, 'but it's not just about the purely economic case. These are children and families, not just present and future workers.'
And Ms Pascal is clear that very different principles are needed for those children and families if we are to move forwards. 'The way we treat our young is a marker of our society. To do well by them, we must have the grace to invest in what we want our society to be.'
Mr Moss agrees. 'We have to take stock and see where we want to go. We can't change things overnight - it will take ten or 15 years - but when we know where we want to go, we can start planning and moving. The New Zealand approach is an exemplar of how this can be done.'
And what if the Government continues on its current path? How might the early years sector respond to a downgrading of intense relationships and free play on the route to saving costs? 'There'll be an all-out rebellion,' says Mr Leitch. 'I'm grateful that we overturned the change in ratios, but we were nowhere near close to the edge of what the sector might have done if the Government had not backed down.'
It is a warning that Ms Truss and the wider Coalition Government would do well to heed. Whether you are Hannah Cockroft or Usain Bolt, no sprinter ever won a race without support.
- Prime Minister's Lord Mayor's Banquet speech, www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9673847/David-Camerons-Lord-Mayors-Banquet-speech-in-full.html
- More Great Childcare, www.gov.uk/government/publications/more-great-childcare-raising-quality-and-giving-parents-more-choice
- More Affordable Childcare, www.gov.uk/government/publications/more-affordable-childcare
- Liz Truss report, www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/affordable-quality.pdf
- A Comparison of International Childcare Systems (DfE, July 2013) by Professors Chris Pascal and Tony Bertram and Sean Delaney and Carol Nelson, www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/212564 /DFE-RR269.pdf.