By Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson for Early Years Educator, August 2016 and Your Voice, August 2016
While current childcare policy has great aspirations for children, the economy and equality, it lacks coherence, investment and the support to make it a reality. The tinkering of successive governments has led to a dilution and diversion of policy that fails to address the needs of children, families and the workforce charged with implementing it.
The original policy – which aimed to support the development of children, especially those from less well-off backgrounds, to improve their life chances and aspirations – has changed over the decades to include affordability of childcare to enable increased parental employment, and so improve equality of opportunity for children and their parents, reducing poverty and the benefits bill along the way. These are worthy aspirations and ones which childcare policy can contribute to – but not solve alone.
A recent report, Universal Pre-school Education: The Case of Public Funding with Private Provision [The Economic Journal on behalf of Royal Economic Society], found that the introduction of free entitlement produced only small (educational) benefits and that these did not continue to impact on education at age seven and 11.
That report, along with Widening the gap? The impact of the 30-hour entitlement on early years education and childcare [Centre Forum], documents the pathway, direction and effectiveness of childcare policy, funding and investment over several decades. Together they highlight the many missed opportunities there have been to get childcare policy right, and question whether public funding has achieved its stated aims and, most importantly, if the recent policy change of extending the entitlement to 30 hours is likely to be successful and achieve its stated aims.
The correlation between quality and staff qualification is well known and understood within the early years sector, and recognised within the reports. Findings that staff qualification levels, and therefore quality, are deemed better in local authority settings are unsurprising, given the infrastructure that supports them, which includes better job security and preferable (but not ideal) pay and conditions for early years workers.
What is less prominent in the reports is how the lack of funding and investment and changes to qualifications impact on quality and on recruitment and retention. Both reports question childcare policy and highlight current and future challenges.
Funding childcare through both supply and demand does not, it seems, make childcare more affordable for parents or provide sufficient funding to enable the sector to invest in training. Neither way is proving sufficient to provide the necessary investment the sector needs. Is splitting the funding in this way the best way to achieve the desired result?
There is a diverse early years sector which could – given the right conditions, funding and incentives – expand and deliver the very best high quality early education and care for children. But first we need a coherent policy and sufficient funding and investment.
What should childcare policy look like? The policy must be clear in purpose and aim. Is it to support and promote child development, or to support the economy by facilitating parental employment? Can it, or should it, do both?
A recent consultation asked the purpose of education. We should ask the same question of early years policy. What and who is it for? What is its purpose? Asking these questions would be brave and welcome, if overdue. The sector knows not only what is required but how it can be provided.
But asking questions also requires government to listen and hear the answers and engage with the sector to develop a policy – one which the sector understands and supports.