June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the UK’s largest charitable social enterprise, London Early Years Foundation which operates 39 nurseries across the Capital. In this challenging thought piece, June sets the sector the same thought provoking question as that tackled in the recent 14th Margaret Horn Debate: “Times of upheaval bring radical change and revolution. Is this the moment to change the direction of Early Years?”
There is enough evidence from across the world to confirm the benefit of small children accessing high quality Early Education and Care. However, I have long argued that the public does not understand this and consequently the role of Early Years has yet to become a well-funded and central element of our modern social and economic infrastructure. So much so that when I hear the benefits of Early Years mentioned in the media, I am agog.
The other night I was watching my late-night Netflix addiction, How to Get Away with Murder. The lead character, Annaliese Keating is a lawyer taking on the unfair judicial system. In her law class she asked her students to identify a significant social justice issue they would fight for. Right there in my cosy half-light, I sat bolt upright as one of her students pitched for the rights of small children to have equal access to high quality Early Childhood Education.
In England, we have not had a big enough public debate to explore key questions such as:
· What is our view of the child?
· What is Early Childhood Education and Care?
· What do we mean by pedagogy for Early Years?
· Is there a role for society in rearing children, or is it a family responsibility only?
This has meant that we can never get the public to get behind the BIG issues in the sector that prevents ALL children having access to great Early Education and Care, as they would in primary education.
We get stuck instead in a miasma, a bit like the Upside Down in Stranger Things! We sort of understand the importance of helping small children learn and develop but we also ask whether this is the job of the family? We think parents should pay for the service as they want to go to work but then we realise that by going to work they contribute to the economy and some of the taxes that could help fund Early Years and childcare settings. When the sector speaks to each other it often feels like an uncomfortable scrabble for funding that allows the central debate about the purpose and values of Early Years get lost.
Dig even deeper and we find further confusions. Are we clear about how we describe ourselves? Are we Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) – a descriptor more often used by academics? Are we simply Early Years? What does this mean to the public? Are we childcare, and does that mean we are not education? Do we always need to spell out Education and Care as one entity or can we trust that by referring to Early Education we can assume everyone knows and agrees that you cannot have Education without Care?
It’s the same for how we describe our role. Are we Early Years Educators, Practitioners, Early Years Workers, Nursery Nurses, Nannies, Childminders or Early Years Teachers? We have never ironed that out to everyone’s satisfaction and have interwoven it with qualifications and status rather than linking it to the task we are expected to carry out with the children. I call all the LEYF staff ‘Early Years Teachers’ because that is what they are expected to do. The teaching in Early Years has a defined knowledge base and merits its own Early Years Royal College. Parents always refer to us as ‘teachers’.
Furthermore, the Government does not rate, let alone cherish, the Early Years sector- unless it is under the cloak of public education or, to a lesser extent, local authority. If the state does not understand the true value of Early Years unless it is connected to a formal model, how will things improve for children? How will parents realise that formality does not drive excellence? How will we strengthen the importance of the Early Years pedagogy?
Finally, there is the sector itself. We have appeared to have absorbed the Neoliberal ideology of markets, competition and private provision. This means we work in a marketplace which, by its very nature, risks creating an unequal sector despite the best of intentions. This is compounded by dual Government policies one which is designed to support parents to work or train as a significant route to reducing poverty. While, the other is meant to provide education for small children – especially those from poor and disadvantaged families. Either way, neither policy is properly funded and compounds the challenges of the sector.
COVID-19 has brought many worries and fears – perhaps the biggest positive emerging from this crisis is the realisation that we are capable of global collective action. The power of social leadership has never seemed so important, underpinned as it is by the concept of interconnectedness. Now is the time to rethink Early Years so we agree a coherent approach designed to deliver both those policies but tell the story so we bring parents and the wider public alongside us.