An early years workforce stretched to breaking point

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Concerned parents should be afraid...very afraid about the proposals in More Great Childcare, says Kate Hulm, lecturer in early years & early childhood studies



If we took the time to properly consult our very young children about where they would prefer to spend their formative years, especially before they are three years old, there is no doubt that a majority would tell us that place would be with their mother, father or other primary care giver. 

That is not to say that children do not or cannot enjoy group care situations. However, we need to think very carefully about what it is that daycare settings, in all their different forms, have to offer children in their earliest years when parents choose or need to work. 

Clearly, what they cannot give children in the same abundance is the focused care, attention and love that most children take for granted in their own homes, no matter how concerned and attentive the people responsible for that care. 

If this Government has its way in its frighteningly remote from reality, More Great Childcare proposal, the current, often stretched, situation will change and not for the better for children.

Increasing the ratios in early years settings by even one child can only significantly reduce the quantity, and more importantly the quality, of attention for all children.

There is a reason that human beings typically give birth to one offspring at a time. This is to do with the high level of dependency of human babies, which lasts far longer than for other mammals.  It is a known fact that in families where there are multiple births, more adult support is often needed for the mother’s physical and emotional well being as well as in responsiveness to the communication and distress signals of the babies. 

This begs the question of how increasing the number of places in childcare settings can make childcare better. The recommendation to increase ratios in More Great Childcare takes no account of either children’s, or indeed the adults who are attempting to care for them, well being. 

The current ratio for children up to the age of one is three to each adult. If we bothered to ask either the children or the adults caring for them, they would say this ratio often feels stretched to breaking point, both in terms of both the physical care and the emotional responses it is possible to give children. 

We know from research that there are negative consequences for children who cannot form strong, emotional connections to those who care for them. Initially, this is about a child’s bond with their mother and father.  However, if a young child spends any time being cared for away from home, attachments with other primary care givers must be factored into equations relating to emotional health.

The adults who work in early years settings, both maintained and private, are not superhuman; they have one pair of hands, two eyes and two ears to respond to children with, the same as any mum or dad. Anyone who has been or is a parent will tell us there are times when this feels insufficient for one child, let alone three or four or six the same age! 

We have to ask ourselves what the consequences for children will be if the ratio of children to adults goes up, even by one child.  It has been suggested that this move will be discretionary.  If every business that offered childcare services reflected upon this properly in terms of the impact for children and their staff team they would not change their ratios. However, the nature of any business is to make money and therefore the less scrupulous or concerned daycare settings will increase their numbers. 

It is extremely unlikely that this increase in their workload will be reflected in staff pay. The early years workforce in England is already one of the worst paid in any developed country, with an approximate salary for an early years practitioner of £12-14,000 per year. This averages out to a rate of £7.00 per hour, just 81p above minimum wage! 

It is hard to contemplate the demoralising and damaging effect of this policy proposal on the early years workforce as it clearly places very little value on what they already do. Even with the best will in the world on the part of practitioners, putting all of the issues of their pay and working conditions to one side; it is impossible to understand, with added pressure on adult time, how the early years experience for children in daycare can be an improved or high quality one.  

Government research, the longitudinal EPPSE study, into the impact of early years experiences on children’s outcomes specifies that the quality of the care and early learning experiences has a profound and long lasting impact on children into their school years. 

It is incomprehensible that this centralised and poorly thought through lessening of regulations, which puts cost above quality, can be anything but detrimental for children. It is essential as a society that we understand this current policy proposal for what it is, and that it is not about what children would tell us they want, or what is best for the early years workforce, or even parents; it is purely fiscal.

If you read her introduction to More Great Childcare, Elizabeth Truss makes this fact clear. The Government’s main premise is that more children in affordable childcare will increase the number of people, especially mothers, able to work and therefore pay tax. Perhaps this document should be entitled, equally poorly grammatically, More Great Revenue because that seems to be its fundamental aim.  



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