by Claire Kenyon, co-founder of Early Years Equality and Director of Rewild, the Children's Garden
It's Saturday. My boys are watching the Rugby, but I'm still reeling from the shock of 30 hours for all children under five announced on Wednesday, so I have decided to condense my thoughts into words. We had minimal warning that this was coming, and for many of us, there's a sense of utter disbelief in the Government's blatant mockery of the EY sector once again.
There are many 'popular' opinions about the decision, from ill-informed cheering that this is progress, which feels rather anti-child, to positively outraged. I fall into the latter category. I have read some excellent articles, but a couple, in particular, have stood out for their concise analysis of the situation.
The first is by Shannon Pite from The Early Years Alliance on Linked in. Shannon rightly reminds everyone that this is not a ground-breaking policy. The Green Party and the Liberal Democrats proposed similar offers in the last election in 2015. The Conservative party had no choice but to offer something dramatic and so offered to double the then-current 15 hours. It has never been funded properly. This is a horribly familiar scenario. The early years' sector, neglected for years, seems to come into the spotlight every time there's an election. We are, simply, political pawns. We will be arbitrarily forgotten once the election is over until the next one. My most cynical idea is that the Conservative party knows they have little chance of winning this election, so they have decided to chuck a massive curveball into the mix they won't have to manage. If anyone wonders why there's a delay in rolling out the 'reforms', this could well be the answer! It wouldn't be the first time. Cameron, after promising the Referendum, abandoned ship once the Brexit vote came in, wiping his hands free of the chaos that he caused.
The second piece of writing is from Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book. Ockwell-Smith describes the policy as 'childist'. I think this word describes perfectly the lack of consideration that the Government has paid to the children who will be affected by their plans. There has, after all, been almost no reference to the rights of children, and what is the best policy for them throughout their earliest years. The lack of thought to the children is almost laughable - except there really isn't anything funny about it at all.
The one thing that the sector has long needed and asked for is appropriate funding for 3/4-year-olds. 3/4-year-olds are the majority (about 85%) of funding claims. We should be getting about £8.70 per hour by now, but the average paid outside London is just £4.56. More than anything, this increase was what the sector wanted and needed. Let's face it, funding had only gone up 53% since its introduction (which was initially a voucher towards pre-school). NMW, however, has increased by almost 200% over the same time.
Sadly, rather than the hoped-for increase to a fair hourly rate for 3/4-year-olds, we got a 30% increase for 2-year-olds, who make up a tiny proportion of funded children. 3/4-year-olds got just 21p. This was clever. It meant that ministers could announce that they had increased the funding by 30%, as MP Bim Afolami repeatedly tried on BBC Question Time. To add insult to injury, even though the 30 hours 'free childcare' hasn't worked and led to thousands of closures, the Government extended this offer to ALL children under five. And, adding yet more salt to the wound, relaxed the ratios - a move that we had been assured had been ditched. If ever there was a policy to make us feel ignored, this was it. It was totally contrary to what we needed.
Those that will suffer are the poorest children in society, whose parents can't afford to make up the difference. Settings in deprived areas have closed, widening the attainment gaps between rich and poor. There has been no consideration for the families in these areas, relying on the goodwill of the many exceptional practitioners who work for nothing to support them. This is, indeed, 'childist'.
Labour's Lucy Powell on BBC Question Time said, "it was a back of a fag packet job". It seems so. Any policies that are made without the children at the heart of them always make me shudder. The dehumanisation of babies and young children has a disturbing history in Europe. It's the reason that, in my opinion, the term 'childcare' is something that should be banned from use. This may sound extreme but 'childcare' is something that can be done by 'anyone'. it is keeping children occupied/alive while parents are at work. My 13-year-old son could probably keep a toddler alive for a day but both he and the toddler would likely be traumatised by the end of it. He wouldn't do it for the amount offered by the government either.
'Childcare' is a very poor subsitute for mothers and fathers. Without extensive knowledge of child development, staff are ill-equipped to make ECEC an aspirational experience for the children. A poorly qualified and high turnover staff is an anathema to secure and emotionally thriving children. We need to be talking about pedagogy. We need to be talking about ECEC experiences for children that will work for them, not offer the cheapest solution to parents going back to work. Early experiences matter. Hugely. Without question, we will be paying for this in mental health and social services in a few years time.
The other problem with the word 'childcare' is that the really highly qualified staff find it, frankly, rather patronising. Until the change from Early Years Education to 'childcare' in 2015, the narrative was quite different. We now have a situation where brighter students are put-off from entering the profession as it's not seen as a career choice. Instead, it;s suggested to less academically able students (mostly teenage girls) as one of the 'hair or care' options available ot them. This is a tragic state of affairs. We know that children do best when they're with educated parents - why on earth would this not be the case when they're at a nursery setting? Still it seems to be widely considered that 'childcare workers' aren't that bright. The DfE, as well as being dishonest about costs, seems to think that we'll be placated with a year's supply of stickers and some riddles, rather than funding us properly. The infantile treatment of nursery owners and workers is extraordinarily degrading. I received this leaflet from them just this week. I won't be sharing with my staff.
As recently as last week on LBC, it was insultingly suggested that nursery workers had failed in their own education. Additionally, making it so value-less as to be 'free' makes us feel little better tthan babysitters (although I suspect their hourly rate is higher). Despite the rhetoric of valuing our sector, it is totally misogynised - by both men and women - who consider 'childcare' a domestic task that is done, in the main, by women.
Still, this is politics. Or, in fact, politics and PR. There have been some deafening voices who seem determined that children should be birthed, and shortly afterwards placed in a kind of 'infant storage unit' for as little money as possible so their parents can go back to work. The work done by The Royal Foundation into brain architecture is simply inconvenient, as is attachment theory, and the future mental health of these children. Best not think about that.
The self-congratulatory tones from Jeremy Hunt & co are excruciating and show a painful ignorance towards early childhood development. Particularly upsetting were the messages received by Early Years Equality from setting owners saying that this was the final nail in the coffin for them, some had even been contacted by their banks to withdraw loan offers within 24 hours of the announcement. Perhaps more than anything else, this action should be the one to alarm politicians the most. After all, when the banks can’t see a way of making things add up, there’s little chance that the government are going to manage it either.