MSPs should set their sights higher

14th July 2006 at 01:00
In the first of our series of TES Scotland summer debates, Iain Smith (left) and Bronwen Cohen (right) discuss the parliamentary report on the early years

Yes, it's good to talk - let's have a debate on early years. It rarely receives the attention it deserves. So when the Scottish Parliament's education committee initiated its inquiry in January 2005, the move was widely welcomed.

Eighteen months later, there are certainly some findings that will win support. Most notably, it is encouraging to have a report from the Scottish Parliament that recognises the educational, social and cultural contribution of early years services, urges increased investment because it "pays massive dividends for the future" and calls for a new 10-year strategy.

However, what is deeply puzzling is that a report that sees these services as "a priority for investment" and challenges the Scottish Executive to establish an early years sector "that is aspired to by the rest of the world" does not offer a stronger lead on how this might be achieved.

Some of us were heartened to learn during the inquiry that the committee was visiting Sweden and Finland. Iain Smith confirms that the committee was impressed but says that "we have come from a different starting point".

Indeed. Nobody expects Scotland to "import" Swedish and Finnish services but there were some lessons that appear to have been missed. Neither country arrived at their impressive services overnight. In the case of Sweden, this began in 1975 with a requirement on local authorities to provide early childhood and school-age childcare services for parents in paid employment and training, and children with additional support needs.

This led on to the entitlement from 1995 for all children - irrespective of the employment status of their parents, disability or disadvantage - to a full-time place in a pre-school or school age centre from 12 months to 12 years.

In doing this, Sweden addressed a problem common to all European countries: the historical separation of services (and workers) providing "childcare"

from those providing "education" - or more informal services. It opted to make pre-school services the first stage of a universal lifelong education system, staffed by an integrated workforce.

Swedish parents - who can afford to - pay for their pre-school services but local authorities were encouraged to set a ceiling on parental fees. By 2003, all of them decided to do this because it was so popular with their electorates.

"Universalism" is also now a policy aspiration south of the border. When working on the manifesto for the last Westminster elections, the former English cabinet minister Stephen Byers wrote in the Guardian about the need to move beyond "a highly targeted approach . . . we need to ensure an equal start by caring for children from different economic groups in the same place".

Such an approach was apparently seen as something Scotland cannot afford; Holyrood's report describes as "ambitious" current plans in England and Wales to roll out children's centres to every neighbourhood.

Yet Scotland has a head start on England in developing a universalist approach. The target set in 1997 of a part-time nursery place for every four - and subsequently three-year-old - was met in Scotland faster than elsewhere in the UK and, truth to tell given the levels of provision here, did not represent the same challenge. Why are we not trying to do more? The inquiry's report suggests a limited vision in these broad areas.

But there are also specific points about the report's remit and its omissions that raise concerns. Iain Smith asserts that one of the committee's aims in holding the inquiry was to stimulate debate ahead of the early years workforce review this autumn. However, what he does not mention is that the terms of reference of that review excluded teachers.

The report recognises that "teachers should not be considered in isolation from their colleagues". But when and how can the issue of a divided workforce and the bridging of the vocational-professional divide be considered?

Surprisingly, statistics - essential as a baseline for understanding context - are largely absent from the report and it is not clear what statistics were available to the committee. We are offered no map of what is currently available, their hours of opening, or trends in provision.

This matters because published statistics currently available do not support the development and effective monitoring of any kind of strategy.

For example, we do not know at a national level what proportion of services, by provider, are offering full-time care, or how many services are being attended by children in a day, over the week or year or pre-school period.

A key recommendation of the 2001 Audit Scotland report on pre-school education was that councils should integrate their pre-school education with childcare. To what extent has this happened? Does the education committee know?

Finally, Iain Smith is right to note that, although early years services is an area devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is also one on which Westminster policies on tax and social security impinge. Scotland has also been included in Westminster-led initiatives such as Sure Start and the extended schools programme.

If Scotland were to adopt a stronger supply-side approach to funding services it would certainly make sense to have some means of channelling back the resulting taxation and benefit savings into services. Is this not a question that we should address? Was it not an issue that the committee itself might have considered? And might we then be able to aspire to more?

Bronwen Cohen is chief executive of Children in Scotland.

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