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Ending a pernicious split: how to get beyond childcare as a commodity to education as every child’s right

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 August 2020

Peter Moss.

Early childhood services in England need to be transformed. The split between childcare and education, firmly embedded in our deeply flawed system, is one of the key problems. The solution is to stop focusing on childcare and reform our early childhood provision as an education service.

This is a central argument of a new book I have edited with Claire Cameron, with contributions from academics at or associated with UCL Institute of Education.

After the second world war England’s early childhood services suffered policy neglect for decades and the split between ‘daycare’ services (under health) and school-based services (under education) was ignored. Then the 1997 election brought landmark change. Early childhood became a New Labour government priority, followed by a start on integration. All services came under education and a common system of regulation (Ofsted and the Early Years Foundation Stage) was implemented.

But integration stalled before the difficult bits were tackled. Services remained fragmented, with day nurseries and childminders providing childcare for working parents, while schools continued to focus on early education for over-3s. All received public funding, but parents using childcare were subsidised, while services providing education were funded directly.

There was no entitlement to childcare, but the new right to part-time education for three and four-year-olds was brought in. Most strikingly, the workforce continued to be split between poorly qualified and badly paid ‘childcare workers’ and a minority of graduate and better paid school teachers.

Underlying these structural divisions is a pernicious idea: ‘childcare’ is a commodity that employed parents purchase from private providers, but ‘education’ is a child’s right made available by the state.

This split fosters divisiveness and inequality. ‘Childcare’ services are confined to children with employed parents and are used most by higher income families; only at age four do most children come together at school. Despite government subsidies, most parents pay for childcare, but education is free. At the same time the workforce divide ensures a yawning gap in training, pay and working conditions between teachers and their poor relations, childcare workers.

In the book, Transforming Early Childhood in England: Towards a democratic education, we contrast England with Sweden. Both countries had split systems in the 1960s, but England ignored the situation while Sweden embarked on a steady process of reform. Today, the Swedish early childhood system is totally integrated, providing a seamless service for children from 12 months to six years. Before 12 months, children are at home with parents, who share well-paid parental leave.

As in England, all services in Sweden come under education and have common regulation. But there the similarity ends. All Swedish children from 12 months are entitled to a place in a publicly-funded service; there is a common funding mechanism providing a period of free attendance and capping parental fees at a low level for the remainder; the workforce is based on graduate early childhood teachers working with all ages; and nearly all children go to centres taking children aged one to six. These ‘preschools’ are designated a form of school and early childhood is recognised as the first stage of the education system – equally concerned with enhancing children’s care and security, self-esteem and well-being, and development and learning.

Transforming early childhood in England, we argue in the book, requires ‘a political commitment to a fully integrated [early childhood education and care] system, with services provided as an entitlement for all children from birth to six years and their carers, the service to be local, inclusive, responsive and democratic.’

That system should be based on the Children’s Centre, an English innovation; on a graduate early years teacher or pedagogue; on common funding, giving free attendance for the equivalent of school hours; and on the right of children to education from birth (though we also argue for a transformed, Swedish-style parental leave to enable parents to share the care of children in their first year).

What we propose is an early childhood system that is first and foremost educational, with learning as a core purpose. But not its only purpose. Children’s Centres are multi-purpose public services, able to respond to the diverse needs of children, families and communities – that is their great potential.

What about ‘childcare for working parents’? Not a useful concept in our view, which should be dropped forthwith. All children, whether or not their parents work, need care – care as a way of relating that applies in all services, an ethic of care. All Children’s Centres (like all schools) should be open for hours that recognise that most parents today are employed. These parents need a broad package of support, including good parental leave provision (the subject of a chapter in our book).

Transformation will take time and, importantly, long-term commitment. It requires bold moves on access, provision, workforce and funding. But our book has many examples of how transforming early childhood is not only desirable but eminently achievable. And given the pandemic crisis, and the fragility it has revealed in our existing system, there’s no better time for such comprehensive change.


Transforming Early Childhood in England: Towards a democratic education, edited by Claire Cameron and Peter Moss, is published by UCL Press. It is available free as an open access book here. Hardback and paperback versions are also available for £45 and £25 respectively.

Photo by vsuydam via Creative Commons

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