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We need an overhaul of England’s early childhood system, not ‘just’ more childcare

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 March 2023

Peter Moss.

A child's hands handling toy building blocks

Credit: FeeLoona / Pixabay

Ahead of his UCL Lunch Hour Lecture on 11th May, Emeritus Professor Peter Moss sets out why ‘just more childcare’ is not the answer to England’s early years needs.

Last week’s Spring Budget saw the latest of many attempts by successive governments to fix England’s broken early childhood system. More funding was directed at childcare. But expensive childcare is just one symptom of a flawed system, itself the product of decades of government neglect followed by a failure to think critically and holistically once early years gained policy attention from 1997.

The result today is a hodgepodge of fragmented services, coupled with weak and poorly co-ordinated leave provision.

There are at least seven different types of early childhood service in England, each with a different offer. Some are school-based, others are ‘childcare’ provision, the latter dominated by nurseries and for-profit businesses. Fragmentation is heightened by a deliberate policy of marketisation, encouraging providers to compete. The early years workforce is split between a small minority of graduate teachers and a large majority of childcare workers.

Access is haphazard: all 3- and 4-year-old children are entitled to 15 hours a week of early childhood education, whilst 30 hours of free ‘childcare’ is on offer for the same age group, soon to be extended down the age range, though only if their parents are employed (and in all cases, the offer is for just 38 weeks a year). Financial support for parents is “complex”, with at least eight different programmes to help families with childcare costs.

As for leave policies, they are confused and confusing. A very long period of Maternity leave, mostly badly paid or unpaid, some of which mothers can transfer to their partners, is supplemented by unpaid periods of Parental leave that few know about and even fewer take. A lack of synergy between leave policy and early childhood services means parents face a gap between the end of the short period of better-paid leave and the start of an entitlement to services.

This system is not working well for parents or children, or for the low qualified and poorly paid childcare workforce for that matter. It is also socially divisive, with nurseries mainly catering for employed and better-off parents. Meanwhile, successive governments have shown unwavering commitment to the marketisation and privatisation of early childhood services, despite research, here and abroad, suggesting both are problematic.

Equally important in my view, the system has come to be overly dominated by ‘childcare’. All services for children, including schools, should be organised to support employed parents, including in their opening hours. But ‘childcare’ should not be the focus of services; other purposes, such as education, are more important. Moreover, talk of ‘childcare for working parents’ fails to recognise that care should be an important part of all services for all children and young people.

The dysfunctional state of England’s early childhood system is thrown into sharp relief when compared with that of Sweden. Here there is 13 months of well-paid parenting leave, designed to incentivise parents to share. From 12 months all children, whether or not their parents are employed, are entitled to a place in an early childhood service, the great majority going to a ‘pre-school’, a centre for children from 1 to 6 years of age (children start primary school at 6; in England it is 4). ‘Pre-schools’ are legally defined as schools, but have a distinct early years pedagogy delivered by an integrated workforce of graduate early years teachers and assistants. There is a period of free attendance for 3- to 6-year-olds; for the remainder, parents contribute but their costs are capped at a low level. While successive governments have encouraged marketisation and private providers, most pre-schools continue to be provided publicly, by local authorities. Attendance rates from 12 months are high, including among children from less advantaged socio-economic groups.

Today’s Swedish early childhood system – universal, integrated and public – did not drop out of the sky. In the 1960s, Sweden had split services and split workforces, and not enough places. But instead of charging ahead with more of the same, the Swedes took time thinking about how to develop their system. They set up a Commission in 1968 that, with much public input and discussion, came up with considered proposals for reform of early childhood services. Another Commission led to the development of the parental leave policy that is such an integral part of today’s Swedish system.

This is not to say that England has produced no good ideas. We have excellent nursery schools, public services dedicated to early years education. And we have Children’s Centres. These were first piloted in the 1970s (by the Thomas Coram Research Unit, among others) as multi-purpose, community-based services for all children and families. Ignored by governments at the time, they were eventually adopted by the New Labour government, which, at the turn of the century, opened 3,700 in just seven years. Sadly, both these good ideas are neglected today, while private nurseries are given free rein.

What to do? It’s late in the day, but I agree with the Nuffield Foundation’s call for a ‘wholesale review’ of the system. Such a review, I hope, would lead at last to deep re-form, and say farewell to markets, farewell to private nurseries, and, yes, farewell to an obsession with childcare.

Hear more at the UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, Farewell to childcare: transforming England’s broken early childhood system, by Emeritus Professor Peter Moss, on 11th May 2023, 13:00-14:00. The lecture is open to the public and free to attend; book your place here.

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One Response to “We need an overhaul of England’s early childhood system, not ‘just’ more childcare”

  • 1
    Sonia Jackson wrote on 23 March 2023:

    Hi Peter, Congratulations on your excellent blog. But shouldn’t this be in the Guardian, or better still The Times?