Transforming early childhood services in England
Since 1997 early childhood education and care (ECEC) has been a policy priority in England. But decades of prior neglect have left a legacy of deep-seated problems, never fully addressed.
9 October 2020
Professor Claire Cameron and Emeritus Professor Peter Moss investigated these problems and sought ideas for solutions from around the world. They found that transformation is needed to give young children the all-round upbringing they have a right to and parents the support they need to both work and care.
The need for transformative change
There are a number of problems facing ECEC in England today, including:
- a system split between childcare and early education, creating inequalities, divisions and discontinuities;
- too much focus on ‘childcare’ instead of ‘education’, when ‘care’ should be part of all services for all children;
- fragmented services, different types providing for different purposes and different families, with unequal access for disadvantaged children;
- transfer to primary school at too young an age, not good for children and weakening the early years sector;
- a devalued workforce, mostly consisting of ‘childcare workers’ with low status, qualification and pay;
- a one-size-fits-all curriculum and a culture of managerial accountability, too focused on standardised and measurable outcomes and preparing children for primary school;
- observation and documentation as tools of measurement and standardisation;
- a democratic deficit, with democracy absent as a stated value, as a daily practice, and as a means of governing the system and individual services;
- a large gap between the end of well-paid parental leave and an entitlement to attend early childhood services. Leave policy itself, like ECEC, is flawed and dysfunctional.
Towards transformative change
A move towards a public and fully integrated system of early childhood education underpinned by a broad concept of education combined with an ethics of care is advocated by Professor Cameron and Emeritus Professor Moss.
This integrated public system would be:
- available as a right for children from birth to 6 years and their carers, combined with 12 months of well-paid maternity and parental leave, with at least 4 months available only for fathers and at least 4 months only for mothers;
- based on a network of multi-purpose and community-based Children’s Centres, providing education to all children plus other services for children and families, with opening hours that recognise parents’ employment;
- staffed mainly by graduate professionals specialising in work with children from birth to 6 years, having parity of status and conditions with compulsory school teachers;
- recognised as the first stage of education, prior to primary education starting at age 6, and with comparable standing to other stages in the education system;
- free to attend for a core period, equivalent to primary school hours;
- funded directly, not via subsidies to parents. Over time, public funding would be withdrawn from the private, for-profit sector to be used exclusively for the public system;
- closely connected to local authorities, with a rejuvenated role in planning, coordination and support as well as providing Children’s Centres, alongside non-profit private providers;
- built on values of participatory democracy, cooperation and solidarity.
The system would be based on pedagogical values and principles, including:
- slow knowledge, slow thinking and slow pedagogy, allowing time to linger, reflect, revisit, and leading to deep learning and rich meaning-making;
- observation and documentation, and in particular pedagogical documentation, that enable all learning of all children to become visible and valued;
- assessment as a cooperative process embedded in everyday educational experience, turning from the current demand for managerial accounting and towards a democratic, participatory accountability;
- trust in and respect for the agency, capabilities and potentialities of all involved, whether children, practitioners, parents or others.
In order for this transformation to take place, a transition period of up to 15 years, continuity of policy, and a single ‘early childhood fund’ are proposed by the researchers. The proposed transformation, it is argued, is utopian - but it is a real utopia that is desirable, viable and achievable.
- Top: Children playing in a sandpit. Photo by Dr Kate Cowan.
- Bottom: A woman reads to children in a classroom. Monkey Business / Adobe Stock