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 dominating issues. Firstly, there was a view, reinforced by government policy, that a woman’s place was in the home; mothers should not be working. There was hardly any childcare, apart from childminding. Secondly, education, health and social services were un-coordinated at national and local level. Documents of the time frequently referred to the muddle and fragmentation of provision. Thirdly, the levels of inequality and poverty were shocking – especially in inner cities. The effectiveness of education is always offset by social conditions.
There has been a sea change in attitudes towards women, partly because of feminist agitation all through the 1970s and 1980s. Now it is perfectly respectable for mothers to work and to seek childcare, and services have increased exponentially to meet the demand. That is a major plus.
In theory, services are more co-ordinated. The DFE took over responsibility for many of the early years services that were previously located in the Department of Health. At a local level, children’s services departments were set up, and co-ordination was made much easier – although local authorities have now lost many of their functions and powers, and their funding is severely diminished.
Levels of poverty and inequality have not changed very much. Housing tenure for the poorest is shockingly insecure, and drug misuse is widespread. It is disheartening to teach hungry and disturbed young children, and witness their suffering, and more disheartening still to realise those in power do not see, or worse, do not care about, what they have created through their policies.
For many years, the beacon of provision for young children was the free standing nursery school or children’s centre. Originally conceived by Margaret MacMillan, and promoted by IOE luminaries such as Susan Isaacs and Jack Tizard, these were havens for children, spacious, with generous gardens, trained teachers, and often unconventional hours to cater for children’s needs. But they were expensive to run. Their numbers grew in the 1990s, with the Labour government. But many have since closed, and their expertise has been lost. Instead, Labour as well as Conservative administrations have promoted the private sector. Private nurseries now account for 84% of provision for children three and under, and nearly 40% of provision for children 3-5.
The regulatory legislation governing private childcare and early education provision is relatively lax, and the standards required are less rigorous than those for nursery schools. For instance, there is no requirement for outside space, or for full-time qualified teachers. In poorer urban areas, private nurseries are often in cheap, cramped accommodation – converted shops or ex-industrial premises, or terraced houses, fronting on main roads. Recent research suggests staffing is a major problem, since teachers, and other qualified staff, are unwilling to work for small private companies whose pay and conditions cannot match those of the public sector. There is little accountability. The private sector is not required to provide annual reports or accounts for parents, or have any kind of representative governing body. It is this private sector that the Labour party is now seeking to endorse, and pour money into, presumably because it is easier than re-investing in public nursery schools and children’s centres.
This is a potted history of the changes that have taken place. The conference at the UCL IOE on November 6 will explore these changes in early years policy in more detail and hopefully, make new suggestions.
Helen Penn is Visiting Professor, Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education and Professor Emeritus, University of East London.
Photo: Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, Newham, courtesy of Playlink