Can we reshape the early years?

June O'Sullivan
Monday, November 16, 2020

How do you know a Zoom debate is lively? Well, read the chat.

At this year’s 14th annual Margaret Horn debate the question explored asked if times of upheaval bring radical change and revolution, is this the moment to change the direction of early years?

As ever, it produced a good humoured, spirited conversation with differing views and valid perspectives.

Our guest panellists included: Danny Kruger MBE (British Conservative Party politician and author of the recent Levelling up our Communities Report), Neil Leitch (CEO of the Early Years Alliance) and Claire Dove CBE who led Blackburne House Group for 30 years, was Chair of Social Enterprise UK for 10 years and is now the VCSE Crown Representative for Social Enterprise.

The presenting position of allowing the market to shape the services of Early Years was challenged as failing to deliver either of the two main policies for children and their families. To remind you, these provisions of childcare are meant to enable parents operating in our two-parent economy to work and supported by a strong high quality Early Years sector for all children to access – especially those from poorer and more disadvantaged backgrounds.

This debate has been raging for well over twenty years but re-kindled by the first national strategy in 1997. Whilst we have made noticeable progress in terms of quality and expectation of delivery, we still remain far too disparate and cannot claim consistent delivery of inclusive services for all children.

History is always a good place to centre a debate. Whilst acknowledging that his party doesn’t always understand the importance of the early years, Danny likened the discussion to the fight for National Elementary Schools – a debate which started with the Ragged Schools in 1840 then shaped into the delivery of the National Elementary Schools in 1870 and eventually morphed into the primary and secondary schools we know today in 1944.

This is an interesting comparison because Margaret Horn lived through that debate and, in a book I refer to in my blog, she notes how the politicking and dissent were equally challenging when she was on the London School Board.

Every early year’s debate asks whether we need to start again or follow our own historical journey? I believe in the importance of context and owning our own responses which is what many other countries have done.  

Therefore I am not convinced of the helpfulness of the comparisons to Scandinavia or hearing how New Zealand re-started their service from scratch and poured money into getting everyone trained to embed their Te Whāriki philosophy in collaboration with parents. A much easier task in a country of only five million inhabitants.

The debate raised lots of the problems we currently face i.e. no national philosophy about children, no shared articulated view of the child, insufficient funding, low status of the workforce and a lack of a shared public agreement as to who is responsible for Early Years education. We don’t help this by failing to have a shared story to tell. We can’t even agree what we are all called. 

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website.

I constantly complain about this; are we childcare, Early Years, early education, Early Years care and education, childminders, practitioners?  

A lack of a coherent narrative causes confusion for the public and inhibits us from telling a powerful and inspiring story. Would a Royal College of Early Years Care and Education help?

Finally, we all agreed that we need to get the public and parents to understand WHAT we do and WHY it matters.  We have seen this work successfully. For example, when parents realised the impact on a reduction of staff to child ratio and we persuaded them that their babies need one staff member to no more than three babies (one lap and two hips) that policy was ditched.

So, how can we provide the best, coherent means of delivering a national early years’ service for children?  

We agreed we must share our compelling story of the ‘positive possibilities’ that early years can deliver for all children. 

Maybe our best storyteller is the Duchess of Cambridge who, for the last nine years, has spent time articulating the link between experiences in early childhood and the root cause of today’s toughest social challenges. 

Is her commitment to this crucial cause, and working together to bring about positive, lasting change for generations a good starting point? Join the Royal Foundation conversation.

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