It was an admirable vision. Young children, having access to early education – the best input at the time it mattered most. Fifteen free hours in a setting to talk, and explore, and play, to share stories, and run around, and climb, and make dens, and dig, and get mucky. Every child matters, so catch them young, get them talking and socialising and hook them on learning. Freeflow as a priority – indoors and outdoors coming together as one space. Children in charge of their own learning. A learning diary to show all their achievements across the curriculum. Forest schools and high ratios, a pathway for great practitioners to achieve their EYP status. The EYFS outlined a set of broad and balanced goals for each child to reach for. (Perhaps in too much detail, but hey ho, you can’t have everything.)
Either my eyes are going, or the vision is getting watered down (or quite possibly both). Freeflow and learning journeys are no longer compulsory. There’s talk of ‘school readiness’ and ‘more testing’ (I shudder to type it). But above all, I really don’t ‘get’ a ratio of one adult to thirteen children. That’s childcare; not early learning. Have a think about it. If you have ever hosted a toddlers’ birthday party, you’ll know how much damage that number of kids can do with their parents present. But imagine this: all the parents are gone and you’re on your own, and then your friend’s kid yells ‘I’ve pooped my pants!’. Who ya gonna run to now?
Of course I do ‘get’ it: the logical fiscal response to the ‘issue’ of affordability is high ratios. With a graduate in charge somehow a magic spell is cast and it’s simple to ‘teach’ thirteen three and four year olds all at once. Well at the exact moment you do that, you’ve moved from early learning to childcare. Those children will have to sit down, stay still and do what they’re told. Tennis balls on chair legs. You’ve sacrificed the sacred cow of early learning on the altar of affordability. QED
The idea of higher ratios and higher pay for graduates doesn’t add up anyway. £3.50 per hour, even if it’s x13, doesn’t compute. Our EYP refuses to cut ratios to get a hike in pay but even if she did, we can’t run with only one or two members of staff. Can Early Years Teachers or Teach First ones really swoop in to ‘solve’ the affordability conundrum by achieving high ratios? This idea looks bizarre if you know that a significant proportion of early years settings are voluntary run, often set up as charities. The rest of the sector consists of private providers (many run by local people giving a service to their area rather than big chains), childminders and state nursery schools. I know our accounts, and I’d guess it’s hard for anyone to make much of a profit. High ratios cost money because staff cost money. There are lots of people in the sector taking a hit on pay.
I have an idea: it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an idea just waiting to be seized. The government offers more support to voluntary run settings, helps them to become social enterprises if they wish to. They tear down every single barrier there is to local people getting involved in their local services. Talk of the ‘Big Society’ could so easily be put into action – it’s there, just within reach. The DfE could start by confirming that parents will never have to pay £52 to be CRB checked to help run their local voluntary run (charity) preschool.
Working at a preschool or as a childminder is a great option for a mum (or dad – please!) who wants to work but needs the job to fit in with children’s school hours. A sustainable sector is there, within reach. We don’t have to sacrifice ratios. We don’t have to close the door on freeflow. High quality input at the age of two, or three, or four, can have a hugely powerful impact on what happens later on. But it’s never going to happen cheaply.
If we genuinely want social mobility through education, then why on earth would we settle for a ‘childcare sector’. Surely we’d want to create an ‘early learning sector’ instead?