The Labour party manifesto brings in a new policy on early education and childcare. It extends the government’s 30 hours of free childcare programme to the parents of all two-, three- and four-year-olds and improves the training of childcare workers. How new or radical is this policy? Can it deliver?
In my new book Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible: A memoir of work in childcare and education (Routledge) I explore the changes in early education and childcare policy over the last 50 years, from the point of view of someone working in the services and trying to change them. On 6 November, a conference at the UCL Institute of Education, Looking Back, Looking Forwards, will take the debate further.
When I began as an early years teacher in London 50 years ago, there were three (more…)
Last week the government announced details of their latest attempt to introduce Baseline Assessment into Reception classrooms in England. As widely reported, this policy will cost £10 million, with the sole aim of producing data on children aged four which can be compared with their test results seven years later. The return of Baseline, after an unsuccessful foray into testing four-year-olds in 2015, is based on the idea that the best way to judge schools is to measure their ‘value added’. The outcome of the Primary Assessment Consultation was that the best place to establish this starting point was in the first weeks of school in Reception.
There is a certain logic to this, and the resultant possible downgrading of Key Stage 1 Sats to non-statutory in 2023 (as they will no longer be needed as a starting point) may be popular. But, the findings from my research on the previous version of Baseline (with Guy Roberts-Holmes), suggest that (more…)
Dominic Wyse, Rosemary Davis, Phil Jones, Sue Rogers.
If asked to summarise the main features of current early years and primary education policy, a teacher might be forgiven for homing in on the following: over-reliance on synthetic phonics; continual performance monitoring of narrowly measured learning, in a limited number of areas; challenges to play-based learning; and reductions in professional agency. (more…)
Hardly a month goes by without yet another report – from government, charities or think tanks – about the need to fix England’s early childhood services. Split between ‘childcare’ and ‘early education’, with a fragmented and incoherent patchwork of services, and combining high cost to parents with a poorly paid and poorly qualified workforce: we find ourselves in a hole, and don’t seem to know what to do. The hole, though, has been there a long time, and we’ve had opportunities to get out.
Back in the early 1970s, in the midst of a half century of post-war government neglect of early childhood services, some reformers saw the way forward. Appalled at the fragmented, incoherent and unresponsive state of these services, Jack Tizard, IOE Professor and founder of the Thomas Coram Research Unit, argued for the creation of “multi-purpose children’s centres offering part and full-time care with medical and other services, to a very local catchment area”. These services would be both responsive and free – since “for a society which provides free education, including free higher education, and free child health services, a free pre-school service is a logical corollary”.
But he did more than argue for change: he acted. Two demonstration Children’s Centres were established, in Camden and Westminster, to examine the feasibility and possibilities of this type of provision. Others followed suit.
Governments of the day, though, showed no interest; and when Children’s Centres did finally gain a place in early childhood policy under New Labour, it was a case of too little, too late. Instead of being the basis for a comprehensive system of multi-purpose services readily available to all, they were tacked on to a ramshackle system that had grown more fragmented, incoherent and unresponsive since the 1970s, adding yet another type of provision to the existing confusion of day nurseries, playgroups, nursery schools and nursery and reception classes – all jostling for customers in a chaotic marketplace.
Now, under austerity, those Centres that were established are being eroded by cuts and undermined by an increasing emphasis on provision for the most disadvantaged children. The original dream of a universal, inclusive and responsive service has not been realised, the opportunity lost.
Other countries were more far-sighted. Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s took the opportunity to recast its split services, to build what is today a fully integrated system of early childhood education and care. This offers an entitlement for all children from 12 months to 6 years, with a well qualified workforce, made affordable by a combination of free attendance and capped fees. All this is based on the ‘preschool’, a centre providing for all children in its local community, where (in the words of the Swedish Preschool Curriculum) “care, socialisation and learning form a coherent whole” and democracy is affirmed as a fundamental value.
England has had its opportunities to get its act together, not just in the 1970s but also in 1997 when New Labour came to power pledged to make early years a priority. But instead of getting out of the hole, instead of taking time to consider what we wanted and needed, we kept digging, taking the seemingly easy route of more of the same.
Are we destined for an endless round of overblown government rhetoric (‘More great childcare’!), parental complaints and peripheral changes? Are we unable to learn from places that really do have ‘world class’ services? Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’ – but it’s still worth one final attempt at producing a proper Early Childhood Strategy, with a ten-year goal of a fully integrated system, a well qualified professional workforce and Children’s Centres offering a responsive and inclusive service to all our children.