A question of trust

Neil Leitch
Thursday, February 13, 2014

Current early years policies betray a lack of understanding of very young children's needs, argues Pre-School Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch

Earlier this month, the government confirmed the news that we all knew was coming: it is pushing ahead with its plans to place more two-year-olds into schools.

This decision comes in spite of much vocal opposition from early years providers, many of whom see it as the latest step in the government’s relentless ambition to drive more and more young children into a formal learning environment.

What exactly is the problem, some may ask? After all, there are some fantastic schools out there that work closely with early years providers; schools that have recognised that providing support for two-year-olds is substantially different to caring for a three- or four-year-old, and offer high-quality provision appropriate to the needs of children of this age.

There is no doubt that this is true, and to turn the debate surrounding this policy into a ‘battle against schools’ would be a gross over-simplification of a complex situation. For many, the issue is that this policy requires us to trust that the government understands and values the unique needs of very young children, the importance of play-based learning and the dangers of subjecting them to a formal schooling environment. Unfortunately, past experience suggests that is not the case.

It was only last year, in a now-infamous Daily Mail article, that the early years sector was criticised for being full of 'chaotic' early years settings full of toddlers 'running around with no sense of purpose'. At the time, the government was arguing that we should replicate the French childcare model where early years sessions are 'structured', and children 'pay attention to the teacher' and 'learn to respect an instruction'.

Is this really the approach we want to take with our youngest and most vulnerable children? Having been to France and seen this ‘traditional approach’ in action – complete with scheduled toilet breaks and chairs with tennis balls fitted to the legs to prevent fidgeting – I can say, without doubt: it is not.

Since last year’s controversy over plans to relax childcare ratios, one thing has become increasingly apparent: meeting the needs of children is not at the heart of government early years policy. During the ratios debate, concerns raised over the impact of the proposals on child safety and support were dismissed by government; instead policy-makers focused on the (supposed) economic benefits of the plans, prompting valid fears that the government was more concerned with balancing the books than supporting early learning and development.

And it seems that the government has learned little from that experience, as it was only a few months ago that the Department for Education published a survey asking for parent views on ratios for three- and four-year-olds – suggesting that, despite the sector outcry over their previous proposals, they continue to view ratio changes as a valid money-saving measure.

So when the government talks about encouraging schools to take two-year-olds, it’s understandable that the sector might suspect that the policy is less to do with providing more high quality childcare for young children, and much more to do with cutting costs.

We already have a huge network of experienced, passionate group settings and childminders capable of providing excellent, and appropriate, care for two-year-olds. The problem is that in order to support them in doing so sustainably, the government needs to substantially increase current levels of funding, something that, to date, it has been unwilling to do.

Speaking at the Resolution Foundation childcare event, education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss spoke proudly about how much the government is investing in order to support schools in delivering early years education and care. But when it came to the PVI sector, the only governmental support she seemed to focus on was the relaxation of building regulations.  

Does the government really think that this counts as adequate sector support? Does it not understand that without adequate funding, no provider will be able to make the investment needed to ensure they are actually able to deliver the two-year-old offer?

If policy-makers took the time to understand the complex and unique needs of two-year-olds, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, they would know that caring for children of this age has a number of practical implications for providers: they may need to hire additional staff, or expand or adapt their premises to meet the increased demand for services, for instance. Unfortunately, such issues are rarely taken account during the policy-making process.

As we edge closer to next year’s general election, we’ll most likely continue to hear more and more ambitious pledges about childcare provision from the various political parties: pledges that, in a bid to secure those all-important votes, are predominantly focused on cutting childcare costs, boosting the economy by getting parents back to work, and improving our position in the ‘global education race’.

What I want to hear more about – and I’m sure that I am far from alone on this – is how these proposals will benefit the young children that we are supposed to be prioritising; I want them to be informed by proper sector consultation, and grounded in solid academic research and evidence focused on early years learning and development. At the moment, unfortunately, this is simply not the case – and until it is, these are not policies that I, nor many of my colleagues in the sector, can or will support.


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