Teething troubles

17th May 1996 at 01:00
As the National Children's Bureau's Early Childhood Unit celebrates its tenth birthday, Gillian Pugh reflects on changes in services for young children since 1986.

There is no evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood education, and anyway we can't afford it". It is only three years ago that a minister at the Department for Education and Employment concluded our meeting with these words.

The current debate about expanding education for four-year-olds suggests that in some respects the climate is changing. But for those who have been working with young children over the last decade there is a depressing sense of deja vu in current discussions with government officials and local authority committees and in the programmes of early years conferences.

There is still no overall national policy for the care and education of children from birth to six. The legislation and funding arrangements lead to confusion rather than cohesion. The co-operation of providers in different sectors is being sorely strained by the competition introduced by vouchers. There is still no national training strategy and no recognition that working with young children is a skilled and demanding job. The papers are still full of discussions about the damage to two-year-olds if they are not at home with their parents all day, and responsibility for early childhood care and education is still split between different departments, and described as "pre-school" rather than the early years being seen as an important stage in their own right.

So have we not moved forward at all? Despite this frustration, I believe that there have been some significant changes, and that many of the key issues are now on the national agenda: the challenge now is how to take them forward.

At one level, the most significant development for children has been the Government's ratification in 1991 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the emphasis in the Children Act on the paramount importance of children's welfare, and of listening to and involving children. The continuing acceptance that parents should be entitled to smack their children illustrates the distance that still has to be travelled before the convention is fully implemented, and the education legislation has been rather less successful in putting children centre stage, but a start has been made.

The Children Act has also made a significant contribution to equality of opportunity through its emphasis on services responding to children's racial origin, culture, language and religion. This, together with its requirements for children in need, and the Code of Practice for children with special educational needs, has highlighted the concept of equal entitlement to quality services for all children.

There have also been benefits from our closer links with Europe. These are nowhere near as great as they could have been had the UK supported the European Childcare Recommendation and other aspects of the Social Chapter, but our practice has become richer for the exchange of ideas flowing both ways across the Channel.

As far as the provision of services is concerned, a succession of influential national reports has gradually led to an acknowledgement of the importance of the early years. Most services have expanded - places in part-time nursery education, private day nurseries and with childminders have all trebled, and out-of-school schemes have also grown - although many of these are still paid for by parents out of their own pockets with no state subsidy. Reports from the House of Commons Select Committee, the former Department of Education and Science Rumbold committee, the National Commission on Education and the Royal Society of Arts all emphasised the importance of high quality early education, building on partnership with parents as their children's first educators, and draw heavily on the American HighScope research which showed the economic and social as well as educational gains of investment in early education.

The Rumbold report was also important for asserting that all children should have access to comparable experiences, whatever setting they were in, and for its lucid account of the way in which children develop the "disposition to learn" - an approach which has been central to the early years curriculum guidelines produced by many local authorities over the last five years. Although there are still two - and will soon be three - systems of inspection, against different sets of criteria, there has been a growing recognition of the need to ensure that good care is educational and good education is caring.

Quality will never improve until there are trained and experienced staff in all early childhood settings. The introduction of National Vocational Qualifications in child care and education has promised much but - to date - delivered little. The "climbing frame" of qualifications that should encompass all existing vocational and professional qualifications (including teacher training) is still far from complete, and poorly paid staff need access to funding and time to study if they are to take advantage of it. The new integrated early childhood studies degrees being established in universities are a real hope for the future, but must be part of a wider approach to training.

Diversity of provision has always been a hallmark of services in the UK, where, largely due to a shortage of state-funded services, there is a strong voluntary sector and a growing private sector. Despite the lack of a clear lead from central government, there has been a slow move towards better co-ordination of services at local level, encouraged by the requirement of the Children Act that services for under eights should be reviewed every three years. Many authorities are now integrating, or at least co-ordinating, their early years services and some 600 early years forums across the country are bringing practitioners together.

The Early Childhood Education Forum, which brings together some 30 organisations, has over the last three years also shown a commitment to work across traditional boundaries towards a common view of what is needed.

Although it sometimes feels as though nothing has changed, early childhood care and education is now on the agenda, and there are many pockets of excellent practice. What is now needed is a coherent long-term policy, which provides the necessary legislative and financial infrastructure to support quality services, and a culture in which children are respected and their rights acknowledged and met.

Contemporary Issues in the Early Years (a substantially revised second edition) edited by Gillian Pugh includes chapters on these and other issues, and is published by Paul Chapman on May 27. Gillian Pugh is director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau.

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