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One MP's recent comments recall the age-old debate about the 'care' and 'education' of young children, says Michael Pettavel

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Michael Pettavel, head teacher, Brougham Street Childcare and Nursery School, Skipton

The recent foot-in-the-mouth comments by Suffolk MP Dr Thérèse Coffey, saying that the Government’s flagship 30-hours policy ‘is largely based on the premise that the 30 hours equivalent … is split into 15 hours of education provision and 15 hours of general childcare without a specific educational focus’, made me chuckle.

I am sure the sector’s reaction to her comments have brought into sharp focus just how many dissatisfied groups there are. It seems a bit misguided to relentlessly annoy the very people you rely on to make your policy work.

I know we are all feeling a bit peeved at having to deliver everything for nothing and do it without negatively impacting the children who should be a the heart of the debate. Apart from underlining how little is understood about the importance of the early years, it shows so clearly that we are often seen as a baby-sitting service.

To me, it brought back that age-old debate about ‘care’ and ‘education’. I was once told that you can have care without education, but you can’t have education without care. The longer I work in early years, the more I think this is true.

If the routines and care standards take over the day then children just have things done to them and they don’t learn a lot. It might be safe, but it is pretty dull. I think this is how the Government sees early years – a kind of passive stasis for children until parents return from work; it’s cheaper. It wasn’t so long ago that there was the fiasco about increasing ratios for babies and toddlers (somebody must have recommended it).

If, however, you prioritise the education then children are active, busy and engaged. The adults have to be well trained, the environment engaging and the relationships close. In these circumstances the care follows naturally, because of course the care has to be in place for children to learn (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). If you plan the day around learning, you will have already considered how ‘care’ fits into what children are spending their time engaged in. They come first.

So, Dr Coffey’s unfortunate comments [now retracted] identify what is the nub of the problem; as all the research points to the value of high-quality education, for a cash strapped government it is simply another inconvenient truth.

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