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


Early childhood in England: time for a real transformation

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 May 2024

A dad adjusts a toddler's seat on an adult bicycle while a child wears a colourful helmet. Credit: Cavan via Adobe Stock.

Credit: Cavan via Adobe Stock.

Peter Moss.

A recent editorial in The Guardian asserted that ‘childcare and nursery education in England is in the process of being transformed’. It referred to the government’s policy of extending ’30 hours free childcare’ to children from 9 months of age, providing they have employed parents earning over a certain amount. There is, however, nothing transformative about this policy; rather, it is more ‘reformist tinkering’ that simply doubles down on what the Nuffield Foundation recently described as ‘a dysfunctional system in need of a radical re-think.’

The government is simply pouring yet more public money into nurseries, mostly run as businesses and increasingly corporatised and backed by investment companies, and extending subsidised places for a relatively advantaged group of children and employed parents. It does nothing to tackle the dysfunctionality of the system, with its fragmented services split between school-based and so-called ‘childcare services’, and matched by an equally split workforce, most of whom are low qualified and low paid female ‘childcare’ workers. It does nothing to address the marketisation and privatisation of the early childhood sector, which are problematic in practice and questionable in concept; such a set-up would be unacceptable in primary and secondary education, yet has come to be taken for granted in early childhood. It does nothing to extend an entitlement to early childhood education to all children, not just some with employed parents. And it does nothing to bring democracy into the system, currently squeezed out by a combination of private providers and central government control.

But England is not alone. A book published this month, Early Childhood in the Anglosphere: Systemic failings and transformative possibilities, by myself and Linda Mitchell, shows how these features of the early childhood system in England are common across the Anglosphere, which, in addition to England, includes Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and the United States. The book, too, contrasts this Anglosphere model with two others: a split system, in which school-based, rather than childcare, services are dominant (exemplified by France where all children have at least 3 years full-time nursery education); and a fully integrated system (exemplified by Sweden, where all children over 12 months, following well-paid parenting leave, are entitled to early childhood education, in ‘pre-schools’ with an integrated workforce based on graduate pre-school teachers).

When faced by the need to expand their services at the end of the 1960s, the Swedes stopped to think and deliberate on how best to do this. A four-year national commission ‘mobilised expertise from every corner of the country to assist them in their work’ and provided the basis for today’s exemplary system. England, by contrast, neglected early childhood until 1997, then has spent no time thinking critically about the flaws in its existing system and the options available for development: the result has been more of the same in an ever more dysfunctional system.

The early childhood system in England, with its systemic failings, does indeed need transformation; that ‘radical re-think’ is urgent. The book argues for turning away from the present split, childcare-dominated and privatised system, and turning towards an integrated, universal and public system of early childhood education. Addressing another flaw in the current English system, it proposes this transformed early childhood system should cover children from birth to 6 years, instead of children entering primary schooling at just 4 years of age as they do now. Last but not least, there should be well-paid parenting leave for 12 months (shared between parents), followed by an entitlement for early childhood education for all children.

Despite the systemic failings in England, and other Anglophone countries, there have been important innovations that could contribute to transformation. Children’s Centres in England, rapidly expanded in the 2000s before their post-2010 decimation, are an example of the type of integrated, inclusive and multi-purpose education provision that a transformed system could be built on. New Zealand, the Anglophone country that has tried hardest to transform its system, now has a mostly graduate early childhood workforce of early childhood teachers, with an ongoing struggle to achieve parity of pay and conditions with primary teachers (helped by a trade union that now represents early childhood and primary teachers). While a recent federal initiative in Canada to pump substantial extra funding into provincial services has attempted to limit the access of for-profit providers, Canada already has the lowest level of for-profit services in the Anglosphere.

What is at stake here is removing the damaging and distorting effect of England’s pre-occupation with private childcare services, and reclaiming early childhood as, first and foremost, a public education service. But not limited to education, capable (as Children’s Centres have demonstrated) of many other purposes – including meeting the needs of employed parents, as do the education-based Swedish pre-schools. A public education service, too, that recognises education and care to be inseparable (as indeed they should be in all sectors of education), applying an ethic of care to all children and all adults. A public education service recognised as an essential part of the social infrastructure, a vital public resource and public good. A public education service for all, meaning farewell to private nurseries, childcare and markets.

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