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Improving childcare `can't wait 15 years'

As the early years sector ponders the implications of two major reports, views on how to ensure high-quality provision are split, with ambition tempered by realism, finds Emma Seith

As the early years sector ponders the implications of two major reports, views on how to ensure high-quality provision are split, with ambition tempered by realism, finds Emma Seith

We ate our lunch in a wigwam, made a swing from a hammock, went for a paddle in a stream and rode a dragon (some might argue that we actually sat on a branch, but not those under the age of 5).

Every day, the Cowgate Under 5's Centre in Edinburgh sends a minibus of children on a 25-minute journey to the foot of the Pentland Hills to spend a day in the great outdoors, whatever the weather.

When they are not at Stickland - the name the children have given to this outdoor nursery - the children are roaming free in a centre run on Froebelian principles. That means the learning is play-based; children are allowed to take risks and are given responsibility; and the outdoors and natural materials are considered vitally important.

Edinburgh City Council is singled out in a recent independent review by the UCL Institute of Education on Scotland's early years workforce (bit.lyEarlyLearningReview). The authority is praised for having one of the "best early learning focuses" in the country, and for "the professional development they provide for early years staff, much of which follows the Froebel model".

However, most Scottish children do not attend a nursery like Cowgate, and Professor Iram Siraj, author of the review, warns that if the Scottish government pushes ahead with its plans to increase free nursery hours, more children will end up in the care of staff "ill-equipped" to meet their needs.

Quality, not quantity

Her comments come as the Commission for Childcare Reform has published a series of recommendations, including a proposal for 50 hours of childcare per week to be made available for children up to the age of 12.

But Siraj warns that the focus must be on quality of childcare, not quantity. Even the government's goal of doubling free care for three- and four-year-olds by 2020 - from 15 hours per week to 30 - is unrealistic, she says.

"All the changes I suggest can begin to be worked on immediately and some can be done in three years," Siraj explains. "But the current workforce requires a 15-year run-in to become more professionalised, better paid, and [with] a good mix of graduate and other professionals who are truly capable of improving children's learning.

"To significantly increase that workforce and expect higher quality is simply too ambitious, unless we believe it's only cheap childcare that matters."

Increasing free hours is likely to result in a proliferation of cheap private nurseries where workers are "ripped off", suffering from poor pay and a lack of training, Siraj warns. It is already "totally wrong" that the wage of an early years practitioner in Scotland can vary by as much as pound;10,000 a year within the same area, she adds.

The Commission for Childcare Reform's report on how best to deliver, organise and pay for childcare provision in Scotland, published yesterday, agrees that the Scottish government is wrong to extend free nursery hours for three- and four-year-olds. But it offers different reasons.

Attention needs to shift to meeting the needs of working parents, who require childcare for children of all ages, all year round, the commission argues. Initially, funding should be targeted at families with very young children who face the highest childcare costs, and those living in poverty, the report says.

The commission puts no timescale on its goal of providing 50 hours' childcare a week, simply stating that it will take "a number of years" to deliver all its recommendations.

Unstoppable expansion

However, Colin MacLean, former director of financial strategy for the Scottish government, who chaired the commission, argues that Siraj's aim of getting the Scottish childcare workforce up to scratch within 15 years is not ambitious enough.

"We recognise that quality is the single most important attribute to get right, but 15 years is too long to wait for anything," says MacLean, who began his career as a maths teacher and has also served as the government's schools director.

"There will be an expansion [of childcare] even if the government does not actively plan for it," he adds. "I don't think you can just say `stop expanding'. It's about making that expansion as good as it can be."

Carol Ball, chair of the education group at public service union Unison Scotland, agrees. She says children who are in the system today need high-quality support in their early years; parents need flexible childcare to balance work and family time; and staff require decent terms and conditions.

When you see the "brilliance" of the Froebelian approaches practised by the likes of Cowgate, you want every child to have that kind of experience, says John Davis, professor of childhood inclusion at the University of Edinburgh.

But improvement will take time, Siraj insists. "At the moment, making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up is there in people's hearts and minds but not in their skills and knowledge," she says. "Also, budgets are not as flexible as we would like them to be. This is about being realistic."

After Siraj's review was published, the Scottish government allocated pound;1 million to promote staff development in the short term, and it will "now consider all the recommendations carefully and in full".

But the cash pledge will not make a major difference, Siraj argues. "The pound;1 million was a welcome gesture but it's a nonsense to think that can change anything," she says. "That [equates to] pound;60 per early years worker."

In her review, Siraj calls for all primary headteachers to receive compulsory early years training; more flexible working conditions for teachers in the sector; a new degree in early years education, with one year's probation, in the same vein as primary and secondary teaching; and all practitioners to receive the living wage or higher, rather than the minimum wage.

`Hair or care syndrome'

Siraj also makes a plea to career guidance staff working in secondaries to end "the hair or care syndrome", where young women unlikely to make the academic grades for other professions are steered towards hairdressing or childcare. As an early years teacher quoted in the review says, workers in the sector "need more than just a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy".

"People need to realise that the care and education of young children requires a professional and suitably qualified workforce in the same way as for those working with older children," the review states.

Until this happens, waiting lists will remain full at nurseries such as Cowgate, where staff are well trained and the quality of care and education is high. Currently, there are 120 children in line for one of the nursery's 57 places.

Even so, it is worth remembering that the early years workforce has come on leaps and bounds in recent times, childhood inclusion expert Davis argues. "The problems are big in the early years but we don't celebrate the huge achievements of these workers enough," he says. "These people - the majority of whom are working-class women - really are amazing, when you think most have done qualifications part-time, [were] promised better pay and conditions a decade ago, and many [do the job] at the same time as raising their own families."

Siraj also recognises that the sector has "achieved much over the past couple of decades". And she says her review covers everything Scotland needs to create a stronger, higherquality workforce.

When that is in place, Siraj believes that it won't just free up parents to work but will also strengthen society, counteract the impact of poverty and increase social mobility.

`Commendable aspirations' for childcare reform

A group of early years, financial and education experts is calling for the Scottish government to abandon its plans to increase free nursery hours for three- and four-year-olds during term time. Instead, it wants investment to be made towards providing 50 hours of affordable childcare a week for all children.

Under proposals set out in a report by the Commission for Childcare Reform, published yesterday, families would pay for childcare on a sliding scale based on income; they would never meet more than 40 per cent of the cost of childcare; and that sum would not exceed 10 per cent of total household income.

In the short term, support would be focused on families with very young children, who face high childcare costs, as well as those living in poverty. The report also envisions that childcare would be paid for from a "child account", through which all money would be channelled. There is no timescale for the introduction of the plans, with the cost to the public purse unknown.

"We won't know until we've done it how long it will take," says commission chair Colin MacLean. "Equally, we don't know how much it will cost in total because we don't know how many families will take up the offer.

"But both the UK and Scottish governments have committed to investing in childcare, using language that is difficult to wheel back from, and there are some pretty big short-term commitments to invest."

The report presents "a very commendable aspiration", according to John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES. "It could be achieved but it would take time, resources and a real commitment," he says. "There would be real challenges for the local authorities, including getting a sufficient number of qualified staff."

The Commission for Childcare Reform was set up by the Childcare Alliance, led by umbrella body Children in Scotland, amid concerns that the political debate around childcare was too narrowly focused on extending free hours when current provision was often inflexible, unaffordable and inaccessible.

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