Sunday, 24 September 2017

‘Collaborative quality improvement’ – a way forward for England’s maintained nursery schools?

I wrote this occasional paper for TACTYC (the Association for Professional Development in Early Years) which considers ways forward for England's maintained nursery schools.

Lately there has been much discussion about possible futures for England’s maintained nursery schools (for example, Merrick, 2015; Ward, 2016; Weale, 2017; Dixon, 2017). This paper explores one possible future for nursery schools: as the leaders of quality improvement for the whole of the early years sector in England. The paper will argue that a cultural and historically-based understanding of the fragmented early years sector is needed, and that peer learning and professional development require funding at every level if the ‘collaborative quality improvement’ model (DfE, 2017: 35) is to be successful. Maintained nursery schools will also need continued protection if they are to adapt to this new role.

The decline of England’s Maintained Nursery Schools
At the time of writing, there are just 401 nursery schools left in England according to EduBase, the Department for Education’s online database. EbuBase lists 205 nursery school closures, supporting the claim made by Merrick (2015:2) that ‘a third of maintained nursery schools in England have closed since 1980’.  During roughly the same period (1980 to 2015), the population of the United Kingdom rose by 7.8 million (Office for National Statistics, 2015a). The number of three- and four-year-old children accessing early years education and care in England has also been rising steadily in recent years. In other words, it can reasonably be argued that the decline of maintained nursery schools in England is not the result of a fall in demand. Nor is it part of an overall decline in early years provision. The British Association of Early Childhood Education (Merrick, 2015: 5) argues that nursery schools are closing because of changes in national and local policy around funding: ‘as local authority budgets come under pressure, nursery schools’ funding is being eroded’.

The founding of an All Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) on Nursery Schools and Nursery Classes in 2015 represented an intensification of the efforts of nursery schools and their supporters to lobby politicians and government. The APPG arguably achieved a significant success when the previous government stated that ‘we remain committed to consulting in regard to the future role of maintained nursery schools and how best to secure their high quality provision for the longer term’ (DfE, 2016: 8). It is, however, noteworthy that the substance of this undertaking is no more than a further round of consultation: there is no assurance of future funding. In addition, the DfE (2017: 35) has proposed a possible future role for nursery schools, as ‘early years teaching schools whose role is to actively spread good practice and support continuous improvement amongst early years providers’.

It could, therefore, be argued that nursery schools find themselves at the boundaries of conflicting policy discourses. Are nursery schools simply participants in a marketplace of competing early years providers, or should all maintained schools (including nursery schools) be funded as part of civic society by local and national government where demand exists? Should the role of supporting and improving quality in the early years be the duty of the local authority, or should maintained nursery schools be funded to develop a more diverse and localised system of quality improvement as local authority resources shrivel away?

In the next sections of this paper, I will be discussing the concept of the ‘Teaching School’ and critically analysing some of the original documents which promote the idea of the school-led ‘self-improving system’ (Hargreaves, 2010; Gilbert, 2012). Such a system raises important questions about professionalism and expertise in education (Ball, 2003; Sachs, 2003; Ball, 2017). I will also be considering Ball’s more recent critical analysis of ‘the state in crisis’ (2017: 38), and whether this is relevant to the recent trend of declining local authority involvement in supporting quality in the early years in England. Is the concept of the Teaching School and the self-improving system an example of the neo-liberal argument which Ball (2017) finds problematic, that in a more diverse and marketised system, ‘bureaucracy is displaced, innovation and creativity are ‘released’’ (Ball, 2017: 38)?

The paper concludes by considering these questions and complexities with reference to a recent evaluation of the work of a Teaching School with a range of early years practitioners (Ang and Ince, 2017). It will be suggested that collaborative quality improvement in the early years, with leadership from maintained nursery schools, is a model that has the potential to be effective. But this will not only be a new and complex way of working; it will raise significant policy questions, and might also create difficulties in terms of relationships between practitioners and settings, and across the different sectors in the early years.

Releasing creativity?
Ball (2017) argues that there is an informal network of private companies, third-sector groups and elite individual educational movers and shakers. In this paper, I will be surveying a narrower field – England’s National Teaching Schools (NCTL, 2017), which are beginning to play a more prominent role in early years quality improvement. Teaching Schools are, in effect, ‘third-sector groups’ that have been developed out of the belief that they will be more effective in training teachers and improving schools than the traditional organisations with those responsibilities.

Read the full paper on TACTYC's website

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