Monday, 27 May 2013

Balancing the need for regulation with the need for professional autonomy in early education and care?

When a debate becomes polarised, it is hard to put yourself between the two poles and you risk spinning like a compass between magnets. What started as an inelegantly expressed call by Liz Truss for "more great childcare" has turned into a dispute in which some seem to be arguing that children, indeed childhood itself, are in peril.

If you'll forgive the change of metaphor, it seems that the National Association of Day Nurseries (NDNA) is somewhere close to the red hot epicentre of the row, merely for agreeing to develop a research project to consider the exisiting flexibilities in the EYFS around ratios, for example enabling early years settings with graduate practitioners to work to a ratio of one adult to every three or four year-old (the same as school nursery classes for the same age of children) rather than 1:8.

This perfectly reasonably project has been described online as a "ridiculous experiment", as if research is somehow equivalent to dodgy experimentation on children; furthermore, I've recently noticed an increasing tendency to oppose the More Great Childcare proposals through "what-if" wondering aloud ... what if a child gets hurt? what if a child dies? This isn't a good way to proceed. The reason to argue in defence of the the current ratios for children up to three is that they are essential to maintaining quality. If we want better quality, we have to start by sticking to what we have. Lots of countries have a less favourable ratio - no-one seems to be arguing that more children round Europe get hurt or killed in nurseries as a result. In any case, we have already seen how a "what if" approach to managing risk in early childhood starts of with good intentions, and leads to a safety-surfaced world where children are barely allowed to climb higher than their knees. Everyone loses out in climates of fear, no-one more so than children themselves.

Somehow we need to start to imagine a world where there is greater trust in professional judgement and autonomy; yet also an adequate level of regulation and protection. I think that William Gormley put the argument really well in 1999: "child care quality depends on child care regulation as plants depend on water. An insufficient amount guarantees problems, but an excessive amount may also be problematic" [REF].