Sunday, 19 January 2014

Children's Centres: the best of times, the worst of times

There is no doubt about what most of the media saw as the main message of the most recent early years report from the House of Commons Education Committee [PDF]: Children's Centres need a "clearer role".

That seems to be roughly the extent of the reporting, meaning that the committee's other important messages have largely been missed. Moreover, whilst the committee holds the Department for Education responsible for this lack of clarity, it would be easy to get the impression that the centres themselves don't know what they are doing. That, of course, undermines public confidence. Who wants to support an organisation that lacks a clear role - let alone pay for it? When you add an apparently catastrophic decline in Ofsted ratings of Children's Centres during the last month (see previous post) then you are looking at a potential crisis for an important public service.

In fact, the committee has many important (and supportive) things to say about early education, childcare and Children's Centres. But before I get onto those, I think it's worth reminding ourselves about the origins of Children's Centres and the high esteem they once earned.  The previous House of Commons Select Committee for Education considered Children's Centres to be “one of the most innovative and ambitious Government initiatives of the past two decades”. What happened?

Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell and Alastair Darling
at Woodlands Park Nursery Centre (in Haringey, London)
Children's Centres were originally part of a wider project "to make early years and childcare provision a permanent mainstream part of the welfare state", as Margaret Hodge wrote in a key 2005 memo for the Department for Education and Skills [citation].  I was lucky to be around in the early days, through my involvement in the Early Excellence Programme launched by Hodge shortly after Labour's 1997 election, and then through association with Haringey's Sure Start trailblazer a few years later.  in 1999, I was looking on when Gordon Brown astonished his aides by leaping into a Tottenham sandpit, quickly followed by Tessa Jowell. I think you can see from their expressions how much they both believed in what they were doing, and enjoyed it. No longer did serious-minded politicians have to restrict their engagement with young children to the occasional baby-kissing at election-time.

For the early years, if I can be excused from some selective borrowing from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.  

The best of times

Initially, the vision was stunning. Britain would move from having practically the poorest level of early childhood services in Europe and ascend to the Scandinavian league in a single leap. For Gordon Brown, that leap into the sand was more than matched by a leap of faith: as chancellor, and then as Prime Minister, he invested large amounts of public money into early childhood services. Yet, inevitably perhaps, behind the excitement there was division. Was the programme primarily about benefiting children and families, or was it driven by the economics of getting more mothers into work? For Hodge, it was always about early education: she developed and championed the Early Excellence Programme, with its emphasis on highly-qualified staff teams including qualified teachers, based around nursery schools - which the EPPE Project had already identified as the best places for young children to be. But for the Department of Employment, it was all about affordable childcare for working families; as for the Department of Health, it was hard to tell from their actions what they thought it was about, as they dithered around putting health visitors into centres and sorting out information-sharing between health and early years services.

So there was lots of money, there was never enough money. The new Neighbourhood Nurseries did not have the highly-qualified staff teams recommended by the EPPE Researchers. Staff pay never matched salaries in schools.  There was no qualification required for Children's Centre heads, and the Centres were only required to have a single teacher working across large numbers of early years settings, their influence spread far too thinly to have any impact. The target-driven culture of New Labour demanded the rapid creation of hundreds of new Children's Centres and got them all ... many of them poorly-staffed, inadequately put together, and housed in sub-standard accommodation. Officials involved in the programme at the Department for Education recount phone calls from the Treasury asking if 600 Centres could be created, then the grand target of 1000 was chosen and implemented. But as an auction-approach to funding public services gathered even more momentum, with Blair and Brown trying to outbid each other, Brown announced in 2004 that 2,500 Children's Centres would be opened by 2008 and then increased the target to 3,500 by 2010 [citation]. That mean that in just over a decade, England went from having 8 Early Excellence Centres, to having 3,500 Children's Centres. Inevitably, when you are implementing policy that quickly, there is insufficient time to research the impact properly and learn as you go along. It was a race, it was all about numbers, and sometimes it felt like the worst of times.

Gunboats and gumboots

Early years practitioners in the field, like me, were not only bemused by the constant increases in target numbers, but also the endless changes of personnel amongst the civil servants responsible for the programme. Civil servants are trained to deliver ministerial policy across all departments of government, whether it's gunboats or gumboots. That may be the glory of the British system, or its Achilles heal - I'm not well-placed to judge which. But I do know that for early years, it proved a disaster. An official would be just getting to grips with the difference between a nursery and a nursery school, with the high diversity of early years qualifications, and with the inequalities of funding between one setting and the next, when she or he would be moved to the railways, and a new official from the fisheries would show up at the next meeting. At its worst, it was the epitome of a New Labour statist policy, all about delivery and having little regard for the elements which make a difference: relationships, knowledge and local discretion.

The distinction between high-quality early education with care, and low-quality pack-em-in childcare, was glossed over. Many centres contracted out their childcare to the private provider that offered them the best deal, and then failed to insist on adequate quality. Millions were poured into attempts at improving provision, yet - in the case of nursery childcare for children before the age of three - it was found by Oxford University researchers to be a little better than adequate when they reviewed the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative (data collected in 2004-5), and not to have improved by 2009 [citation].

Government regulations meant that every year, money had to be spent before the end of the financial year, leading to an unseemly offloading of public money at an unimaginable rate. Local authority training day for every nursery in five star hotels, national conferences at the Festival Hall, free bags of goodies for every family, branded stationary, t-shirts, hoodies and rucksacks, mushrooming numbers of consultants charging more than £500 a day, all became the norm. Everyone fixated on numbers: centres opened, places created, money spent. The difficult work - getting social services properly engaged, or bringing health into the centres for integrated working- was put off to another day.

The achievement was substantial, the achievement was flawed

By the end of the New Labour era, there were thousands of centres. Tony Blair's website lists the  creation of Children's Centres in its list of his fifty key achievements and right at the end of Gordon Brown's premiership, Ed Balls wrote that "we now have this new universal service in every community. This hasn't happened by chance. It's happened because we've been prepared to back the Sure Start vision with the serious investment needed to make it a reality, right across the country" [citation].

In retrospect, the achievement was substantial, the achievement was flawed. The difficult problem of recruiting, qualifying and paying for a suitable workforce was never solved. Nor were the difficult policy questions around integration of health and social services ever properly addressed. There was insufficient learning as we went along or encouragement to identify mistakes and critical incidents, and learn from them. It felt like it was all about achieving the initial target, and then aiming for a bigger number.

The new coalition government has done nothing to address those flaws, and everything to undermine that achievement. On coming to power, they removed the ring-fence around funding for Children's Centres and thus fatally undermined. In many local authorities, services for young children and their families always come low on the list of priorities. Cuts were dressed up in the most improbable terms; getting rid of teachers in Children's Centres was headlined as "reducing bureaucracy for professionals in Sure Start children’s centres”. The high-quality early education and childcare that was at the heart of the most successful centres was dismissed at the same time as "largely unused and taking resources away from the frontline".

"Half a person and a bunch of leaflets"

Nick Clegg in September 2013, before the Lib-Dem conference
However much resource those children attending nurseries took away from the frontline, it has been dwarfed by what the government has done. Almost exactly a year ago, the Guardian reported the Labour Party's claim that more than 400 Children's Centres had been closed and £430m cut from the budget for the centres. Some Children's Centres were turned into "ghost centres": open in name only, with "half a person and a bunch of leaflets”, according to Naomi Eisenstadt, first national director of Sure Start. Many others remain technically open as part of a large cluster, with ever-thinning staff numbers and a lack of local knowledge and connections resulting from a more remote workforce. Yet the Centres are still here; they still inspire great loyalty, and when they are threatened with closure fierce campaigning by local parents. Witness the handbrake turns by local politicians in Oxfordshire, KentDudley and Peterborough where centres marked for closure have been saved.  Politicians still seek the glow of appearing in early years settings, rather than ignoring the sector altogether as they did in previous decades. 

The report of the House of Commons Education Committee
Graham Stuart MP
Which leads me back to the recent and somewhat under-reported conclusions of the House of Commons Committee.  The committee's chair, Tory MP Graham Stuart, has led a robust and non-partisan enquiry. The occasional implications that there are shortages of clarity, understanding and effectiveness on the part of Liz Truss (Under-Secretary of State for Education and Childcare) are noteworthy.

The report notes (on page 7) that there were 3, 631 Centres in England in 2010, and 3,116 in 2013, but "the Minister, Elizabeth Truss MP, stated in answer to a parliamentary question in May 2013 that “local authorities tell us that there have been only 35 outright closures since 2010” and that “the rest of the change is a result of reorganisations and mergers of existing centres."" Truss is found not to have addressed "directly" the recommendations of the Gross report on information-sharing, but nevertheless agrees that there has been a failure to develop cross-government working in the early years (page 46). She is quoted as claiming that there is only a single piece of longitudinal research with relevance to Children's Centre, thus ignoring the substantial National Evaluation of Sure Start which ran between 2001 and 2012 (page 8). What the committee judges to be a woolly and inadequate definition of a Children's Centre is believed, by the minister, to be "deliberately broad" (page 11) - a conclusion that the committee is "not convinced by". 

The Committee was concerned by the lack of a statutory model for the governance of the centres, yet found the minister was preparing to fiddle around with new structures rather than sort out the ones already in place, willing neither to "confirm nor deny" that she was looking into creating new Centres based on Free Schools (page 28). Truss was found to be lacking in her understanding of the early years system, evincing "no enthusiasm for maintained nursery schools; yet these are widely recognised to provide the highest quality early education and - when combined with children's centres - offer the most effective model for achieving the child outcomes the children's centres were set up to achieve" (page 45). 

"It is not enough for the Minister to articulate a vision of equality with other teachers"

Further shortcomings in effectiveness and implementation are noted by the Committee with respect to Early Years teachers; it turns out that the much-heralded involvement of TeachFirst in the early years boils down to a mere sixteen new teachers in London. The disparity between teachers in schools, with qualified teacher status, and early years teachers - which I have commented on in an earlier post - leads the committee to comment that "it is not enough for the Minister to articulate a vision of equality with other teachers–she has to set out a course of action with milestones on the way to a position where equal pay attracts equal quality."

In short, the report is far from a vote of confidence in the policies of the coalition government, or the competence of the minister. That failure of implementation is built on top of flawed foundations, laid with great ambition and good intent by New Labour, but marred by excess haste and a lack of rigorous thinking. 

Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum - and the same is true of the educational establishment. So Ofsted's vision of what a Children's Centre is has been sucked into the vacuum left by the Department for Education. That vision has an astonishing focus on numerical targets - 15 separate types of data and performance management are listed in the Inspection Handbook, for example. 

If I am correct in identifying the start of a drastic downward trend in Ofsted's rating of Children's Centres, and the Parliamentary Committee is correct in identifying a dramatic cut in funding by central government coupled with strategic muddle, then the centres are facing a serious and immediate crisis. Is the dream of a new, "permanent mainstream part of the welfare state" turning into a nightmare?

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