Since the high of our protest on June 24th, Claire and I have been battling with thoughts on what to do now. During that time the funding rates for September have been released and as expected the rate for 3& 4-year-olds continues to be too low to cover the cost of providing the space. For many, the increased rate for 2-year-olds may seem like a big enough jump but we are forgetting that we are not currently paying our professionals enough for the responsibility and expectations of their role. We, and the government, can throw around numbers as much as we (and they) like but until someone has worked out an appropriate pay scale for the sector it is all irrelevant.
Speaking of throwing around numbers, we know this is something that the government and the Department for Education love to do. They believe, possibly correctly, that if they say the words ‘million’ and ‘billion’ enough that we will be fooled into believing that they are funding the sector adequately. This was never more apparent than in their recent blog (Free childcare: How we are tackling the cost of childcare - The Education Hub (blog.gov.uk)) which took it to the new level of blatantly insulting us. They have since changed their wording but for clarification they originally said ‘by making sure the government is properly covering the cost of providing the free places, there will be no need for nurseries to charge inflated fees for additional hours’. This struck an emotional chord with many of us in the sector, not least because they accused us of having inflated fees but also because they basically admitted to having not properly covered the cost before now!
The majority of us in the sector are painfully aware of the cost to parents and that is why fees in most settings are actually not as high as they should be. Not inflated but deflated because we do not wish to burden families financially even more than they already are. If we were to pay our professionals what they deserve (whilst remaining sustainable) fees would be considerably higher than they are. Consequently, government funding would cover even less of the cost of the space, even after you consider the slight increase they are offering from September.
Since we began the campaign our (mine and Claire’s) priority has been to fight for the rights of children to have high quality early childhood experiences. We know the importance of the first 5 years of a child’s life, and it is imperative that we get it right. The educational and care experience that we provide MUST be of the best quality and it MUST be provided by appropriately qualified and experienced professionals. Equally, it can, and should, be argued that this must take place in a balanced way so that children have quality time with their own families.
Whilst the focus is on providing cheaper childcare for parents, none of the above will be the priority. The result of this will be lower quality provision with less qualified and more stressed professionals. The impact of THIS will be on children’s futures. Their mental health, their development, their ability to reach their full potential….. Is it worth all of that just to pay less in ‘childcare’ fees?
We have been very clear that one thing that needs to change is the narrative that we are ‘childcare’ in the same way that family and friends provide ‘childcare’. The implication that we do the same thing as a grandparent might only aids the devaluing of our role. While we are not valued, we will not be funded correctly. While we are not funded correctly, we will not be paid correctly. While we are not paid correctly, we will not attract the professionals required to give children the best start in life.
We asked people working in the sector why they chose this profession. Every single answer mentioned the children. NO one said that they do this so that parents can work. Yet the narrative in media and in policy is constantly that early years is a service to allow parents to work. School is not viewed in the same way. We are not valued in the same way that school is.
But why is this?
One reason, that is becoming increasingly clear, is that we do not value ourselves. We call ourselves childcare, we treat other settings as competition, we do not work together as one voice and so we are not heard. The profession is too often seen as an easy option for girls who are not academic (please note – that is not to say that we believe only academics can do our role), it is not seen as a true profession. It is certainly not paid as a true profession, and we don’t help ourselves there either. The comment ‘we don’t do it for the money’ is too often heard, sometimes jokingly and sometimes as a judgement on those who dare to say they want to be paid more. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be paid a decent wage, in fact we SHOULD be fighting for this. We are holding the future of the next generation in our hands – we should be doing that without worrying about paying our own bills. Value isn’t only monetary, but it shouldn’t be the case that, while doing what is arguably one of THE most important jobs in the world, we are painfully and constantly aware we could be paid considerably more if we worked elsewhere.
There is no immediate solution to this. There is plenty of big action we could endeavour to undertake following our protest – organising strikes/mass refusal of funding, protests across the country, taking the government to court – to name a few. But all of this requires a sector to be significantly more united than we are. One or two providers in every local authority refusing the funding will not have an impact. On top of that all of it requires a lot more time, mental energy, and funds than either me or Claire have spare to give at the moment. However, what we can’t do is give up. Because it isn’t just our future we are fighting for. To begin to unify the sector, learn to value ourselves and help wider society to value us as well we must talk, we must share our stories, we must educate ourselves, we must educate others and we must keep children at the centre of our discussion and decisions.
August is not the best month to start anything, particularly in our sector. Therefore, we are naming September – Early Years: The Conversation. We fully appreciate that to some 'talking' may not seem enough. But until we are in a position where the vast majority of the sector is singing to the same tune only limited progress can be made. Even if you feel more should be done please join us in conversation in September if you can.
Keep an eye out for how you can contribute to this. Additionally, if you would you like to set up your own mini (or large!) Rights on Ribbons installation in your setting or area please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claire Kenyon (junior)