Gordon Brown’s announcement of more free early education and childcare for two-year-olds is a serious attempt to develop early years policy, yet it strikes a bit of a duff note.
The Prime Minister is known for combining seriousness with awkwardness, and I have my own personal memory of walking round a nursery school garden with him, talking about Sure Start, when he suddenly decided to stand in the middle of the sandpit. His shiny shoes scuffed by the sand, he stood there for about half an hour with his advisors, talking about the importance of Sure Start and showing an impressive grasp of detail. A small number of little children tried to carry on playing, and then gave up.
Somehow Brown has managed to strike a paradoxical note with his latest promise on early education and childcare. By taking a subsidy out of the tax system and using it to fund free provision, he is surely moving in the right direction. The decision to fund so much of the expansion of early years provision through tax credits and rebates been very complex, and has surely benefited canny wage-earning families more than those in poverty. Though it sounds old-fashioned to say so, I prefer state services that are free to all. Perhaps the experiment of putting taxpayers’ money the way of private, for-profit nursery businesses is being cut back, at just the same time as Capita’s money-making contract to run the National Strategies is coming to an end.
But the more fundamental question, perhaps, is not whether anyone is making money out of the welfare state, but whether it is benefiting families and the country as a whole. To date, there are few indications that expanding nursery education and care to two-year-olds is beneficial. This year’s major review of the impact of the Early Education Pilot for Two Year Olds found that there was almost no benefit to the children. The cognitive and social development of children in the pilot scarcely differed from those who stayed at home. To be blunt, it was money down the drain.
The report does, however, make a case for good-quality early years provision, which probably does provide benefit two year olds. Unfortunately, good quality is still in short supply: Ofsted concluded in 2008 that “children and families living in areas already experiencing relative deprivation face further inequity because they have less access to high quality childcare provision”. Whilst it might be laudable to attempt to expand the quantity of places for young children, wouldn’t it be better to start by improving the quality?