Yesterday, the new Childcare Minister Sam Gymiah gave a speech to Policy Exchange about how he sees the future of childcare, and why he wants more schools to offer childcare provision for two-year-olds. At the moment, the school sector makes up a tiny percentage of the overall provision for this age group. To me, Mr Gymiah’s speech seemed very short on giving answers, and very long on raising (awkward) questions. So, given that I’ve never been one to shy away from asking awkward questions, here are ten questions Mr Gymiah might want to consider answering. (I have more, when he’s done with these.)
1. Was there a reason why you talked about the impact of preschool provision on lifetime earnings, on convenience for parents, on the number of GCSEs children achieve, on getting parents into work, but you completely failed to mention the vital importance of attachment at this age, and of meeting the emotional needs of children? This is both the most vital part of working with two-year-olds, and the hardest in terms of staffing and provision. Is it possible that you might be putting the cart before the horse?
2. You mention in your speech how “sometimes space can be a barrier”. I’d like to give you a feel for how massive that “sometimes” is. I live in a rural area, and when I think of the five primary schools closest to where I live, not a single one of them has sufficient space for two-year-old provision (or even for a nursery class, come to that). Where I see purpose built provision being added to schools in our closest city, this is usually on part of what used to be a playground or a field. Do you genuinely believe that there is space in our overcrowded schools for lots of new two-year-old provision? And are you concerned at all about how this will impact on outdoor provision for children at primary schools?
3. Are you clear about how the private sector works? (Since you’re a member of the Conservative Government, I’d assume so, but having read your speech I wonder.) A key element of the private sector is competition. In your speech you ask private daycare nurseries to work with schools, and this leads me to ask a fairly fundamental question: do you understand the ‘competition’ part of a market based system? I’m not saying that private daycare nurseries would not be willing to work with schools – the providers I know are keen to do the best for children. But it seems odd that you want private providers to support what is effectively their ‘competition’. Is it possible you have misunderstood how a market works?
4. As a voluntary run setting, located in a village hall, we’d be delighted if our local school said: “Hey, why don’t you move into this lovely purpose built provision that we’ve created for you?” (Although please see No.2 as to why this is not going to happen.) However, the clue here is in the term “voluntary run”. I struggle to cope with my role as chair of the management committee at the moment, and we are only open from 9.30am – 2.30pm for 38 weeks a year. There is no way I would be able to help manage a voluntary run setting that was open 8am to 6pm, 52 weeks a year. It’s hard enough to get committee members right now: do you expect parents to volunteer to run full day, year round provision?
5. You talk about how keeping all the provision in one place eases transitions for children. Intellectually, I understand what you mean – transitions are tricky, and our staff have to work closely with our local primary to manage them. But life is full of transitions, and helping children to manage these is part of helping them to grow up and learn to cope with change. Are you sure that it is such a good idea for a child to enter a school at two-years-old, and to pop out at the other end, at 18, topped up with just the right amount of exams? As a parent, the transitions from preschool to primary, and from primary to secondary, seem to me to have been a vital part of helping my children learn to handle change.
6. I understand that you have a problem with supply in the childcare sector – there just aren’t enough two-year-old places to go around. But here’s a thing: in the private sector, high demand for and low supply of a ‘product’ leads to only one outcome. The cost of the ‘product’ goes up. At present the sector is drastically under funded, with government paying around £5 an hour for places for two-year-olds, and only £3.50 an hour for three and four-year-olds. Have you considered the usual way of increasing supply in a market, which would be to stop asking providers to subsidise the ‘free offer’ and pay them a bit more money?
7. When I got to the bit of your speech where you said: “And as we know, parents trust schools”, will you forgive me for laughing out loud? Is this not just a tad ironic, given the overpowering nature of our current school accountability system, and the fact that Mr Gove spent his tenure as Education Secretary giving completely the opposite impression?
8. You say you are ‘living the early years’ at the moment, now that you have a child of your own. It’s lovely to hear that you and your partner (I’m assuming you’re not a single parent) have a new baby. I’m not going to be so impolite as to pry into your private life, but I’m happy to share some aspects of mine, to give you an insight into what childcare looks like for ordinary people. When we were new parents, our thought process went: give up work (not financially viable); hire a nanny (not financially viable); find a childminder (no one locally); find a part time preschool/nursery place (phew). We are lucky that we can work from home, so we could spend as much time with our small children as possible, which for us was part of the joy of having them. Your vision seems to be of parents dropping off their tiny children at schools, from the age of two, so that they can work full time (often in poorly paid jobs). Does this sound like ‘living the early years’ dream to you? You mention ‘choice for parents’ in your speech. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention childminders (often a vital part of the childcare picture for ordinary folk) and the fact that the number of childminders has reduced drastically in the past few years? What about those parents who would like to care for their own two-year-olds? What are you offering them?
9. You note the sector’s concerns about the ‘schoolification’ of the early years (it’s more than “some people”, Mr Gymiah, it’s LOTS of people, and it’s those people who are already working in the sector). You mention some examples of learning through play – yes, that is what play can look like. But if this is your vision of ‘learning through play’, then why does your regulator have these videos of ‘learning through play’ on its website as examples of good practice, videos that very clearly show adult directed learning (what you might call ‘teaching’)? (See also my blog here.)
10. Now, the elephant in the childcare room is, of course, babies. And here, I begin to wonder about the government’s long term, unspoken, aims. By moving two-year-olds into school based provision, the government would make it very hard for other settings to remain financially sustainable. The sector has grown up organically over the last 50 years (our preschool is about to celebrate its 50th year in service to the local community). At present, full daycare nurseries usually cater for 0 to 4 year olds, and settings such as ours for 2 – 4 year olds. If school nurseries take children from 2 years old, then you do not widen choice, you narrow it, because settings such as ours would have to close. So my final question is this: do you envisage a time when full daycare nurseries cater only for babies from 0 – 2 years old? Or is your long-term aim to get those babies into schools?