A mixed start for the new childcare minister

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Dr Richard House, a co-founder of Early Childhood Action, shares his first impressions


Dr Richard House

The new childcare and education minister Sam Gyimah’s comments in his recent Nursery World interview, are likely to elicit a mixed response from the sector. To give credit where it’s due, it’s most refreshing, first, that the minister will be open to dialogue and debate – for, if genuine, this has to be a substantial improvement on his ministerial predecessors. It’s also encouraging to hear that Mr Gyimah is concerned with helping the less well off (more on this later, however). 

But alarm bells rang when I read about ‘teaching [!] democracy to two year olds’. This tell-tale choice of language is revealing, of course, raising the Truss-like spectre of age-inappropriate quasi-didactic teaching to very young children. With developmental inappropriateness seemingly still stubbornly entrenched in the DfE psyche, we can at least rest assured that the sector is now primed, as never before, to challenge head-on whatever dubious policy commitments do emanate from the DfE (via the Pre-School Learning Alliance, the ‘Too Much Too Soon’ campaign, and so on).

However, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interview is the minister’s championing of school-based institutional childcare for two-year-olds. Why is the Government insisting on ‘driving through’ this policy, and just whose interest does it serve? It merely begs all the questions to say, as the minister does, that ‘once you have a policy like this, you have got to make sure there is the take-up’.

For the real motivation behind this ‘economy-centred’ policy is clearly that of driving as many mothers of young children as possible into the (largely low-paid) workforce. This policy takes no account of  research findings that some 80 per cent of parents (usually mothers), given the choice, would far sooner spend their young children's pre-school years raising their children in an unhurried home environment, free of the relentless demands of the competitive job market. And this is by no means an ‘anti-women’ or anti-feminist argument; rather, it’s to recognise the distinctive needs of young children for consistent attachment, and most mothers’ (and sometimes fathers’) faithful attunement and devotion to those needs.

What’s at stake here is the very future of family life itself – not least, the quality of young children’s early experience, and the development of relatively anxiety-free attachment relationships. All this is gravely threatened by an economic system that is decimating the quality of family life – and by governments who then wilfully reinforce this pernicious process by driving mothers of young children into paid employment, rather than giving families the financial assistance they need to create child-friendly developmental environments. This is especially ironic, given the Conservatives’ historical commitment to the family, and David Cameron’s recent claim that future government policies would be ‘audited’ for their impact on the family. Childcare policy is clearly an exception!

The most effective way to enhance family life and combat poverty-induced child inequalities would be to call an immediate halt to this unholy Dutch auction on ‘universal institutional childcare’, and introduce instead a generous new Child Benefit system for families earning under (say) £75,000 a year, including a substantial homecare allowance for 0–3s, paid for via a hypothecated tax on corporate profits. This would make a massive difference to the quality of family life at a stroke – and in our current anarchic economic system, it’s about the only change that will. 

In another recent interview, this time in The Independent newspaper, Sam Gyimah embraces the new Effective Pre-school and Primary Education and Secondary (EPPSE) research report findings about early education, claiming that ‘The research shows that our current policy position is supported by the evidence rather than being an ideological crusade’. The problem with such a view is that EPPSE is far less scientific, and far more ideological, than the minister (or most other commentators) begin to realise. Thus, for example, the aggregative EPPSE research conflates statistical association with causality, fails to tell us anything about the developmental pathways of unique, individual children, and bases its core findings on narrow, ‘neoliberal’ outcome indicators like exam grades and lifetime earnings, that can by no means be assumed to be adequate ‘proxies’ for balanced, holistic child development.   

When government ministers place unquestioning faith in research findings that conveniently happen to buttress their pre-existing ideological commitments, we have a poisonous cocktail indeed – with dubious cultural norms becoming uncritically entrenched, ideological positions self-justified, and worst of all, our attention being expediently diverted from the real, structural sources of the gross inequality in children’s life chances that bedevil a class society, and which the statutory imposition of precocious pre-school curricula can never significantly ameliorate.

So… – a mixed start indeed; and it will be very interesting to see the extent to which the new minister is genuinely open to ‘dialogue and debate’ about these momentous cultural questions.

Dr Richard House is an educational consultant and co-founder of Early Childhood Action 

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