Manifesto promises must deliver for early years

20 Jun

By Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson for Early Years Educator,  July 2017

The early years sector was probably stunned, as was most of the rest of the country, when the Prime Minister called a snap general election. The reason given was, of course, Brexit.

What the general election did present, however, was an opportunity – for the government to get the early years right, or at the very least improve the current situation for the short and long term.  

The opportunity is there, and the sector – which could never be accused of shying away from a challenge – is ready to play its part.  But what is it that the sector needs to achieve sustainable growth which both meets the needs of children and families and the aspirations of the Government in terms of the economy?

Voice believes that what is needed is a clear, concise early years and childcare policy, supported by a comprehensive, coherent and properly funded strategy – a strategy which ‘works for everyone’ to meet the needs of children and government aspirations.  

The policy must be clear on the purpose of early education and childcare.  Is its primary purpose to improve outcomes for children or parental employment?  One does not cancel out the other, and it is possible to achieve both, but only if sufficiently funded. 

Measurement of value must be agreed, as the electorate expects in relation to spending public money, but until there is clarity of purpose, this will continue to prove difficult to achieve and will not provide evidence for future development and sector growth.

Those within the sector see the primary purpose as outcomes for children, but, from a political perspective, the purpose will no doubt be driven by fiscal and economic priorities. 

There is no doubt that funding is the crucial issue which must be addressed. At Voice, we recognise the significance of the funding cuts that the whole education sector, including the early years, is suffering from.   

When challenged on funding, the Department for Education (DfE) and ministers churn out the same monotonous response – that the Government is investing £6 billion per year in addition to capital funding to increase the overall number of early years places.  At the same time, the Audit Commission reports that, while funding has increased over time, there has been a cut of 4.5% per child in real terms.

The unintended consequence of this cascades across the sector without discrimination, resulting in closure of provision, loss of jobs, reduced choice for parents and the needs of children unmet.   

The fact that more early years settings are rated good or outstanding in such economically challenging circumstances should be celebrated, but this does pose the question of whether this success is because of, or despite, current government policy.

At Voice, we know from our members and research that qualified and unqualified childcare staff are amongst the lowest paid workers in the country.  Qualified childcare professionals who have trained and undertaken academic and practical assessment are likely to earn the minimum wage or a little above it for most of their career.  Promotion opportunities are limited and often provide greater responsibilities that are not matched or reflected by the accompanying salary increase.

The success of an early years and childcare strategy will therefore largely depend on the quality and size of the workforce.  Recent changes on qualifications will help with the current recruitment and retention situation in early years.  However, those enticed away from the sector, or put off from entering it, require a robust career structure, supported by a salary structure which reflects the true value of the professional early years workforce. 

Childcare is still often referred to as the ‘Cinderella service’, the poor relation of education.  Pre-school education and care is the start of the education journey for all children and is the essential foundation for their education.  The important role of pre-school childcare and those professionals who work in the field should be reflected through their pay and conditions.  Without a benchmark to aspire to or the funding and investment from government, this is a difficult task for employers.  That does not deter Voice from promoting this as essential component of a comprehensive and cohesive early years strategy that works for everyone. 

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