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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Early childhood education and care – taking a long view

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 September 2023

Small children sit around a table

Credit: Rodnae Productions.

Alison Clark, Claire Cameron and Peter Moss.

Political parties are preparing their offers on early childhood policies for the next election. While it’s encouraging to see consensus exists that early childhood education and care is a priority, the myopic and short-term approach shared by all parties – more and cheaper ‘childcare’ seems to be the common theme – is deeply disappointing. Tinkering with a dysfunctional system is preferred to taking the long view and transforming early childhood in England.

Taking the long view on early childhood is the subject of the next event in our programme marking the 50th anniversary of the Thomas Coram Research Unit.  Since 1973, TCRU has conducted ground-breaking national and international research on early childhood policy, provision and practice, research that has collectively presented a more ambitious path for the early years.

Nearly 50 years ago, Jack Tizard, the founder of TCRU, wrote of the ‘present hotch-potch of pre-school provision’, the result of historical accidents and precipitating, amongst other ills, social segregation. Little has changed since, with today’s chaotic mix of school-based provisions, playgroups, childminders and nurseries, though now the field is dominated by private for-profit nurseries, jostling for the custom of higher-income parents in a childcare market.

Tizard argued that a better solution lay in a new and universal form of provision, integrating education and care, child health and a range of other services, and available free to all families with young children in its local catchment area: the Children’s Centre. From its first day, TCRU was involved in piloting and researching this new type of early years provision, demonstrating its feasibility. But successive governments ignored the work, Children’s Centres only taken up three decades later by New Labour. In just seven years, 3,600 were opened, then myopia recurred as post-2010 governments gutted this infrastructure.

The endemic inadequacies of early childhood provision in England have been matched by the treatment of the workforce, split between a minority of teachers and classroom assistants in schools and a majority of low qualified and poorly paid ‘childcare workers’ mostly working in the private sector nurseries.  As well as research into the gendering of the early childhood workforce, TCRU has looked at how this workforce might be revalued, based on a graduate profession.

In some countries (such as New Zealand and Sweden) the graduate level early years teacher forms the bedrock of the workforce. An alternative, found in a number of countries including Denmark, is the pedagogue. In the early 2000s, TCRU undertook a programme of work investigating this profession and outcomes of a social pedagogic approach to working with children and young people. Pedagogues have a three year, multi-disciplinary, degree level education including in practical and creative skills, aimed at the ‘care, education and upbringing’ of children, in collaboration with parents. About 60% of the early childhood workforce in Denmark are pedagogues. Unlike England’s childcare workers, many of whom claim state benefits or take on additional work to support their meagre income, the Danish pedagogue earns a salary sufficient to live on.

By the late 1990s, TCRU research on what happens in early years settings also began, quite innovatively, to ask children themselves. It did so through developing ways of ‘listening’ which became the Mosaic Approach, now taken up and adapted throughout the world.

This participatory, visual approach was developed at a time of increasing policy and practice interest in children’s participation following the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child together with the introduction of the Children Act 1989 in the UK. A sadly short lived position of Minister for Children actively promoted such research in the early 2000s, when TCRU was commissioned by government to carry out a report Exploring the field of listening to and consulting with young children. The dramatic contrast with contemporary policy and a system that has become ever more driven by measurement and marketisation gives pause for thought – but, as with Children’s Centres, such interest in the child’s voice showed glimmers of what might be possible in the English context.

A more recent research study, Slow Knowledge and the Unhurried Child, aims to look for alternatives to an always fast forward, pressured and tested early childhood practice. It has emphasized the need for reclaiming other ways of relating to and valuing young children and those who work with them, rooted in early childhood traditions. Attentiveness to the rhythm and pace of children and the ability to enable ’freedom with guidance’, as articulated by Friedrich Froebel who opened the first kindergarten in 1837, is highly skilled work. Again, a suitably qualified and remunerated workforce is pivotal.

Today, there is more widespread recognition of the centrality of the workforce to a good early childhood system, but also of just how far England is from achieving that. Currently, there is an even more fundamental workforce crisis as the present strategy fails to recruit or retain sufficient workers. Were our next government to take a longer view, it would focus on inspiring parents and workers about adapting Danish, Swedish or Kiwi models of early childhood education and care services, where the workforce is reformed around an early childhood graduate professional, a workforce more attractive to male workers, better paid, and helpful to parents, who can work safely in the reassuring knowledge their children are being cared for and educated slowly and well.

Join us to hear more about taking a long view and book your place at our round table event on 18th September 2023, 5:30pm–7:00pm.

An edited collection to mark TCRU’s 50th birthday will be published in Autumn 2023: Social Research for our Times – UCL Press.

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