The early years policy gamble; high stakes poker

Early years provision is both the first and final frontier of education policy, the first chronologically but the final theoretically as, quite understandably, no Government has felt the State should mandate a defined path that all young children should follow as it does for over 5s. What role the state should play and when it should play it in early years support is the subject of much debate and widespread consensus is wanting.

When for primary and secondary education a child’s roadmap is relatively straightforward, and for post-16 it is complicated but comprehensive, the very beginning of that educational journey is uneven and unmapped; the very question whether the journey should start off educational at all is a subject of controversy as there is a loud chorus of voices who argue that children should be encouraged to develop through play rather than formal teaching.

The answer, quite rightly, has essentially been to let parents decide how their children are cared for in their early years, yet, wrongly, parents have been allowed to make this decision with minimal support or direction. The elixir of choice that underpins this philosophy does not quite exist, as the range of provision theoretically available is also obstructed by two key factors; location and cost.

A solution is emerging from amidst the smokey haze of game of Party poker on early years policy.

That childcare could be an important issue in the next election is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is concerning that early years education in the UK is posing a lot of trouble questions for policy makers, on the other it is encouraging to see Party’s proposing answers

Olly, PSI

Governments have made moderate attempts to alleviate the problem of availability by addressing the issues of provision available and the cost of it. The last Labour Government sought to tackle the structural issue by establishing children’s centres to increase supply, aimed at low-income families. The costly Sure Start programme had a mixed success in making high quality provision available, but it was middle class families who took advantage of the programme and made little dent on demand amongst the target market.

This Government’s austerity measures has since claimed Sure Start as one of its victims, with many children’s centres being closed. However, claiming to have learned the lessons of the last Government, the Coalition has attempted to take on the early years conundrum with the goals of driving down costs, driving up quality and increasing availability, all on a shoestring budget.

Plans were introduced to increase the quality of early years staff by setting a higher qualification threshold but reducing the ratio requirement of staff to children, with view to lower staffing costs to centres and the price of childcare to parents with it. Parent groups and the early years sector fumed, believing the ratios of staff to children sacrosanct, and demanded both quality and quantity. The Government backed down, all the while knowing that the concession to increase quality while maintaining quantity will inevitably inflate costs.

Supply side reforms have been introduced to tackle this, with the Government reducing regulations to ease access to childcare and handing local authorities cash to make places available for underprivileged children. This policy was welcomed on principle but last month The Sutton Trust, the respected social mobility charity, said the initiative should be delayed until enough “high quality” places are made available. The Sutton Trust’s excellent report presented a thorough overview of the early years policy area, yet their criticism did vent a feeling that when it comes to early years policy you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Despite this, Labour are not shying away from making early years policy an issue at the next election. The policy area allows the Party to tie in several of its key messages, not least the addressing the cost of living, but also making society fairer and supporting the most vulnerable. Labour leader Ed Miliband has pledged that a Labour Government would increase the 15 hours of free childcare a week for three- and four-year-olds introduced by the Coalition to 25 hours.

Meanwhile, comments by Shadow Children’s Minister Lucy Powell have started speculation that Labour may consider a proposal to a make state funded childcare universally available. Although such plans would be universally popular, it is unlikely to appear in the Labour manifesto given the cost of such a scheme and Labour’s vulnerability to being brandished as the “Party of irresponsible spending”.

That childcare could be an important issue in the next election is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is concerning that early years education in the UK is posing a lot of trouble questions for policy makers, on the other it is encouraging to see Party’s proposing answers – even if many may be half-baked. This is an argument crying out to be better informed, which the Sutton Trust report will go a long way to doing. However, currently the headline childcare policy announcements are little different to current arrangements.

The Party’s appear to simply be playing election poker, by upper the ante and promising to make free childcare support available for slightly more and more children than are currently are entitled. Right now would appear profligate for a Party to declare “all-in” and boldly set out a universal early years education pathway, not just because of the cost but also because many parents would balk at any idea of “institutionalised childcare”.

However the childcare infrastructure, as Lucy Powell has referred to it, is currently inadequate and requires major investment to ensure there a greater number of early years settings available – especially in London. Supply side reforms, such as deregulation and incentivising the creation of places by funding local authorities, will help create provision but when significant cash is made available.

The argument is increasingly being made that poor childcare availability is an obstruction on the economy because it presents parents from being able to work full time, which goes back to Lucy Powell’s point about early years provision being an “infrastructure investment”. Right now the money is not available to the system but if the investment argument chimes with policy makers, then you could make the case for childcare spending being drawn from three pots: education; health and social care; and business and skills.

It is widely agreed that the formative years of a child’s life are the most important to their health, education and social development, yet it is also the area of a child’s life where the state’s role is at best inconsistent and at worst almost absent. There is a strong educational, health and business case that more State and private funded childcare settings should be made available to nurture children with health and care needs, as well as support those from deprived backgrounds and allow parents to work longer.

In many ways, childcare is the ultimate investment, and Politicians are slowly beginning to realise this. Once a Party put forward a thorough, well researched and thought through and fully budgeted plan for a universal early years education pathway, consulted with the sector, then it could force the hands of other Parties to fold or show. Recent policy developments in this area indicate that such a comprehensive plan is at an embryonic stage, we have seen the twinkle in Miliband’s eye but I feel any such announcement ahead of the next election will not be fully formed and open to attack.

Nonetheless, if this debate keeps going throughout the course of the next Parliament then we could see something announced by the next Government or perhaps appear front and centre of a Party’s 2020 manifesto. Just take the NHS, it did not appear in the blink of an eye but rather took fifteen years of policy development (interrupted by the War) before it was finally established in 1948. We live in a faster and more demanding world, but an early years education system needs to be treated nurtured with equivalent patience.

Keep up the debate, but remember good things come to those who wait. Any good poker player will tell you the same.

Olly, PSI