Welcome to the Author Blog for Sheila Nutkins. Here you will find information and Sheila's own thoughts and opinions on topical issues relating to early childhood education and care.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Open letter to Scottish Government

An ‘open letter’ to Scottish Government regarding proposals for expansion of childcare.

It is good to hear that Scottish Government propose to invest more resources in providing quality childcare services.  It is also good to hear that they understand the importance of early learning to later outcomes which suggests that they are making these proposals to achieve better outcomes for more children.  Statements about making Scotland the best place to grow up where no child is disadvantaged by poverty are, of course, laudable and irrefutable.  However, the proposals for expansion of childcare provision will not meet any of these aspirations.

Scottish Government insist that if (and only if) Scotland gains independence they will be able to provide a “high quality universal childcare system that is sustainable, affordable, flexible and provides choice”.  This is a huge task and all the other problems to be addressed following independence will inevitably impact on how and if they can deliver.  The route to achieving this utopia has been reduced to a set of figures proposing 1140 hours of childcare for all children aged 1 – 4.  A figure of £100 million has been floated.

The word ‘quality’ (often ‘high quality’ or even ‘the highest quality’) is thrown into every sentence.  It is not clear what ‘quality’ looks like other than the workforce being ‘highly qualified’.   The current degree qualification that will soon become a requirement for all lead practitioners in childcare settings takes years to complete.  Until this year these BA Childhood Practice students, who are completing a 3 year programme part-time whilst working which takes a minimum of six years, have not been eligible for SAAS funding.  Achieving the degree does not bring any extra pay.  It does enable an individual to take another path, for example, by completing a PGDE course and entering Primary teaching, or moving into a managerial or advisory role where opportunities arise.  There is no incentive for a graduate to stay in, for example, a private nursery actually, directly involved in the education and care of very young children – as in face to face interaction with them.  The actual education and care of very young children is mostly left to young (16 – 19) women with little or no qualification.  They are poorly paid – very poorly paid.
To expand childcare provision as proposed will require at least another 35,000 in the workforce.  The Government tells us this expansion will be paid for from taxing all the mothers who can then go out to work (though this is couched in terms of ‘generating wealth’ or ‘boosting the economy’ rather than increasing tax revenue).  35,000 of them are likely to be doing the poorly paid childcare jobs.  The bulk of the workforce now are not highly qualified and we have barely started to up-skill them so it seems unlikely that another 35,000, even ‘simply’ qualified, as opposed to ‘highly’ qualified, staff can be found any time soon.
The Government’s proposal is more about aspirational statements to achieve a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, than about achieving better social outcomes.  Whilst they promote this expansion on the basis of better outcomes for children, it is costed on the basis of mothers working.  There is evidence to suggest the majority of children 0 – 3 are best cared for at home. Everybody, including Government, likes to use the Nordic countries as a model.  There has been evidence from Sweden that children in day-care from age one have not achieved better outcomes.  If we shift to a system that requires all mothers to return to work where is the ‘choice’?
The present policy agenda of providing more childcare for the most vulnerable children and ensuring that this is delivered in high quality settings by highly qualified practitioners might actually achieve the better social outcomes we all aspire to.  Research tells us that the high qualifications need to be specific to practice in the early years to impact on the experience and outcomes for children and families.  Perhaps BA Childhood Practice graduates could be paid the equivalent of a teacher’s salary to staff these settings?  We could also look to qualified Primary teachers who also have specialist qualifications and experience in early years rather than removing teachers from nursery classes in increasing numbers.  This might make a real impact on outcomes for children, improve services for families and start to build a properly qualified workforce.
Surely the education and care of Scotland’s children is too important to be tied to and dependent upon a ‘yes’ vote in any referendum or election?  This has to be a plan for the long term and not at the mercy of party politics.  It is a shame that the SNP have chosen to use some of the most vulnerable in society, very young children, poor parents, lone parents and poorly paid childcare workers, in their campaign.

It will take years to ensure the ‘high’ quality (which they also need to define).  It is simply not possible to cost the model suggested or, indeed any such proposal, and therefore impossible to state it is sustainable or affordable.  The delivery of this expanded service appears to be landing with local authorities … which allows plenty of room for the blame for failure to also land elsewhere – as usual.

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