Birth of a big idea

Peter Moss

The principles behind Labour's under-fives policy show promise, but Peter Moss argues that the strategy has some growing up to do.

With a change of government looking at least a possibility, the days of the nursery voucher scheme may well be numbered. A Labour government will phase it out. Yet little attention has been paid to Labour's alternative, its Big Idea for early years. In Early Excellence, published at the end of 1996, Labour commits itself to "a programme to bring education and care into an integrated service, to meet the needs of young children and their families". David Blunkett writes that this integration lies "at the very heart of our agenda for early-years services".

Early Excellence seems to mark a turning point. Labour seems to turn its back on tinkering with the current tired, dysfunctional and outdated approach to early-years education, marked by compartmentalisation, inflexibility, incoherence and inequality. It seems to take a radical new direction, towards "an integrated and coherent early-years service", long advocated by many in the early-years field, already adopted by a number of local authorities and the basis for the most successful early-years services in the rest of Europe.

So, why has this big idea received so little attention, so little questioning? Partly because vouchers have used up so much time and energy. Partly perhaps because few people can actually envisage a change of government. Partly because people wonder if Labour can or will deliver. Does New Labour have the political will and understanding to deliver a new deal? But it is also a question of implementation. Has Labour done its homework on what needs to be done to make the big idea a reality?

Early Excellence does set out some necessary steps for implementation, including: l integrating administrative responsibility for day care and education services, nationally and locally, into the education system; * "a legal framework", including legislation to provide a universal framework of registration and inspection; * local development of services through "Early Years Development Plans" and local authority co-ordination of service planning and commissioning; * improving training, through "integrating education and care training opportunities" and developing "a climbing frame of vocational qualifications".

Early Excellence therefore provides not only some sort of vision, but the beginnings of an implementation plan. But only the beginnings. The document begs more questions than it answers and has many gaps.

There is no reference to the need for a national early-years policy, providing a foundation for the integrated and coherent early-years services through a clear statement of the principles, objectives and priorities of the service, plus a programme of implementation containing clear targets. The policy needs to define the early-years service as the first stage of the education system: but it must also make clear that the service has a responsibility for other needs, not only learning, but also care, health, family support and community development. A strong policy statement is critical, because successful implementation will depend on changing entrenched concepts and cultures; in particular, national and local education authorities will need to develop a far broader and more holistic approach to young children, their families and services.

Then the "legal framework" needs clarification. Early Excellence is not specific about what this would mean except legislation to introduce common standards of regulation and inspection. A broader framework is needed. One option is an Early-Years Service Act, defining the service's broad remit, establishing it as the first stage of the education system, specifying the responsibilities of government and local authorities and setting up a single system of standards and regulation. Another option is to incorporate the legal framework for the early-years service into a general Education Act. Either way, early-years services need to be removed from the Children Act, except to retain an extended duty to provide early-years services for children in need.

Staffing and training need urgent attention. Early Excellence rightly refers to "inadequate qualifications for the task in hand", and envisages a modular system of training opening up new opportunities for career progression. But more fundamental reform is required to bring staffing and training into line with the needs and principles of an integrated and coherent early-years service. In our recent book, Transforming Nursery Education, Helen Penn and I argue for a new basic qualification, an early childhood teacher trained to the same level as school teachers - but trained specifically to work with children up to six years old, and to work in a multi-functional early-years service concerned with a range of children's and families' needs.

Early Excellence proposes a small number (25) of "early excellence centres", "to provide a model for integrated early-years services". The underlying principle is important, but the Early Excellence proposal is misconceived. A number of model centres already exist, providing integrated early-years services: adding a handful more is pointless. The concept and implementation of a coherent and integrated early-years service must be addressed in all parts of the country. Centres of excellence would be better pursued through a National Development Fund which encouraged bids from as many local authority areas as possible for the development of services based on the principles contained in the new national early-years policy. The aim should be at least one new service in each local authority area over the first two years of a Labour government.

There is also a need to focus funding where few existing centres of excellence exist. We have a huge legacy of school-based early-years services - part-time nursery classes and early admission to reception class - that are incompatible with an integrated and coherent early-years service which seeks to meet the full range of needs of children from birth to five and to provide family support. Even within its own narrow terms, it is questionable whether these services (found nowhere else in Europe) offer the best educational option for four-year-olds. A National Development Fund should use its financial muscle to encourage innovative school-based early-years services.

Finally there is the M word - money. The early-years service needs a coherent, equitable, assured and adequate funding base, not least because of the chronic under-resourcing of existing services. The only way to provide this base is through a combination of substantial public funding and income-related parental contribution, offering a free "core" period of provision with parents funding longer periods of attendance according to their ability to pay - the funding method that Early Excellence proposes for centres of excellence. Alternative solutions - for example the ill-conceived notion that employers should contribute towards services for children - are neither practical nor right in principle.

Of course, everyone appreciates the Labour party's dilemma about funding commitments. There is a strong case for making a review of funding options an urgent priority. Nor can decades of neglect be put right overnight. But the choices in funding (as in all other aspects of early years education) are plain; continue with short-term and expedient solutions, which ultimately do more harm than good; or develop a long-term and considered strategy.

A final issue concerns what is early years. Even if it is politically taboo to question our early compulsory school age and whether we would be better off moving to six, it is important to ensure that "early years" means birth to five - not three to five or three to four-and-a-bit.

Implemented with vision and conviction, Early Excellence offers the possibility of an early-years service that is not just an adjunct to primary school, but an autononmous, free-standing and important part of both the education system and children's services more generally; contributing to children's later performance, but with its own agenda of early childhood projects.

Peter Moss is a researcher at the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the University of London Institute of Education. Transforming Nursery Education by Peter Moss and Helen Penn is published by Paul Chapman

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