Saturday, 17 November 2018

What have we lost and what have we gained in early childhood education and care?

It was an honour to be asked by Helen Penn to speak at the launch of her wonderfully titled memoir, Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible. It was an afternoon that prompted many thoughts and reflections, which I've set down below. Many of these thoughts arise from the debate and discussion, so I'm not claiming them as mine alone.

We've had quite a journey in the early years over the last few decades: from fierce campaigns for childcare, to winning European-levels of funding under New Labour, to the feelings of disillusion and despair which are widespread now.

The Early Learning Goals controversy in 1999

I didn't know Helen at all when, many years ago, I was interviewed by BBC news about the original "Early Learning Goals" proposal in 1999. A group of us in the newly-minted Early Excellence Centres felt that just publishing a list of goals might not best-serve the interests of education and care in the early years.

There was a bit of a row.

So, I remember saying my thing. Then the interviewer turned to Helen Penn in the studio to ask her opinion. My heart raced. Helen simply said: "Well, I think they're right" before developing a lucid argument about early learning, taking an international perspective.

In the end, following a lot of lobbying by many different people, we ended up with Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage rather than just a page or two of goals. I'm not entirely sure that anything since has been as good as the combination of that document, and Birth to Three Matters.

The afternoon conference and book launch at the UCL Institute of Education promoted many thoughts and memories from my own experiences over the last three decades.

It's easy to forget that for a long time, the campaign for nurseries was part of larger demands for better services and a better way of life. When the Westway was driven through Notting Hill, campaigners fought - and eventually won - battles to create spaces for children's play and for nurseries. Through the 1970s and 80s, there were strong campaigns, often as part of the wider feminist struggle, for better childcare. The best of those campaigns stressed the rights and needs of all women, whilst the worst merely advocated for the needs of well-off "career women".

"No business of the educational service" to encourage women to work

It's worth remembering that the beacon of progressive thinking, the Plowden Report, commented that “some mothers who are not obliged to work may work full-time, regardless of their children’s welfare. It is no business of the educational service to encourage these mothers to do so”.

I think it's fair to say that one thing was largely missing from those early campaigns for childcare: discussions about quality and what would be best for children. Many of those early community ventures were run pretty informally, often by co-operatives of parents, and with little emphasis on formal qualifications and professional development.

Pam Calder remembers the 1970s London Nursery Campaign
But maybe it's too easy to look down on this community activism. I can remember one of the last community co-operatives from my days of working in Tower Hamlets.

There were often objections about the quality of planning, assessment work, and worries about the children's experiences when so many different adults stepped in as volunteers to cover shifts.

But I always found it a thriving and happy place.

Children may not have a had a regular "key person" - but the closeness between the different families, both adults and children, was in its own way a very nurturing and secure environment. Whereas more formal early years providers often struggle to engage and involve parents, in the old community nurseries there was no boundary to cross. The parents and the families were the nursery.

We've worked hard to professionalise the early years workforce and sector. But have we lost the power of community involvement, and the location of early years services in the wider struggle to make a better life for communities.

Studying Early Childhood
Despite the number of years I've spent on post-graduate study, I've still got mixed feelings about the value of higher education for early years educators.

It seems to me that universities have been good at developing policy and theoretical critique. But have they helped us to improve pedagogy?

Early childhood studies degrees have largely been designed to appeal to practitioners, not policy developers. Yet their curricula have barely focused on pedagogy in any practical sense. I've interviewed too many degree-level early years practitioners who not only lack the skills that are essential to do the job well, but also lack the necessary understanding of how children learn, and how adults can help them.

That's why I argued, in my short presentation, that we should not look to the universities to develop pedagogy. Instead, we should be struggling to develop a bigger "third space" between the university and the early years setting, where research and practice can come together.

Neighbourhood Nurseries, Sure Start and Children's Centres
I wasn't the only person in the room at the IOE to remember how exhilarated I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At last we were beginning to develop early childhood services in England that compared with much of Europe . Yet that exhilaration quite quickly turned into disappointment.

Firstly, many of those programmes - like Neighbourhood Nurseries, or Sure Start Local Programmes - were inspired by all the right thinking, but rolled out too quickly. There was hardly and piloting or evaluation. Often programmes were based on naive assumptions. Instead of accepting that nurseries in poor neighbourhoods would need subsidies, three generous years of state funding were promised on the assumption that by the four year, the community Neighbourhood Nurseries would break even. Of course, most didn't. They opened rapidly, and closed down four years later just as quickly.

Sure Start Local Progammes - and then Children's Centres - were expanded exponentially before enough piloting or evaluation was completed. They did a lot of great work, but not enough time was given to allow the services to be properly refined. After a brief explosion of funding, the Children's Centre programme has been almost entirely annihilated by the present government. I've blogged about this recently.

The unique role of nursery schools
My own contribution to the conference was about nursery schools. After discussion on the day, and further reflections, these are the main thoughts I am left with.

First of all, the nursery school must not be understood as a rigid organisation, running just in term times for example. The best model of nursery schools is Islington's - and it was my privilege to be part of that work in the early 2000s.

Islington's nursery schools have highly-qualified staff, led by qualified teachers, working with babies, toddlers and 3s and 4s. They are open year round, and for extended hours, to meet the needs of working and studying parents. A third of their places are reserved for children in need.

Secondly, nursery schools have a dual focus on quality and equality. Their state funding means that they can reach some of the most economically and socially disadvantaged children, and help those children to flourish. Ofsted have found that they are the only part of the educational system where quality is as high in disadvantaged areas, as in all other areas. As a nursery school headteacher, I don't need to worry about paying the rent. I don't need to walk a tricky line between working with parents as my customers, and doing what I think is best for the children who need the most help.

Money poured into a hybrid public-private system

Thirdly, it was surely an enormous error for the New Labour government to pour money into a hybrid public-private system of early education, without putting the required controls in place. Local authorities were actually prevented from increasing the provision of childcare: the assumption was that state funding would enable the private sector to meet demand. There are many excellent private nurseries, of course. But, with rare exceptions, small private businesses are not going to make it their principal business to help the most disadvantaged children to better their life chances. They are going to focus on staying in business. Travel across London, or any large city, and you will see hundreds of small nurseries in old warehouses, shop premises, basements and other poor-quality accommodation.

We have lost the generosity of heart which led, in much of the post-war period, to local communities making sure that children had ample space to play and move.

Is that generosity towards young children lost forever?

I'm sharing my PowerPoint below:

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