In 2003 I left the high pressure world of corporate IT to open up a nursery in Brighton with my wife Jayne and four willing pioneers, Bridget, Vicky, Lorraine and Anna. Whilst today the world of technology has many more terrabytes and gigahertz than when I left it, I thought that nursery life might evolve at a more manageable pace. That said, I’ve also been known to think that England might one day win the football World Cup, so I’m not particularly well qualified when it comes to common sense over optimism.
The journey from boardroom to playroom was to say the least, quite challenging. From the multi-national culture of paradigm shifts, strategic acquisitions and other unintelligible jargon, I was about to enter a wonderful new world of cosy corners, dressing up time, heuristic play and babies throwing cornflour everywhere.
In those nervous weeks leading up to the grand opening, a friend of mine bought me the recently released DVD of Daddy Day Care, and my whole life flashed before me. Would anyone book? Did we have enough food? Would the children take over? How would we pass the Ofsted registration? Would the builder ever take away the overflowing skip from the front drive? Happily, just after 8.00 o’ clock on May 23rd 2004, five very small and excited young faces arrived at the nursery door and our new journey began.
Little did I realise back then in the spring of 2004, that just as our own journey was beginning, the world of childcare was about to experience some of the most radical changes in living memory. Ever since 1997, when Tony Blair announced that childcare would be a key component of New Labour’s policies, early years education and care has increasingly been a political chess piece to win votes. From Margaret Hodge in 2003 to the recently appointed Sam Gyimah in 2014, there have been no fewer than eight Ministers with responsibility for children and families. Only Brighton and Hove Albion have had more people in charge over the same period.
Quite apart from the musical chairs with the Ministers, since 2004 the childcare sector has seen six acts of parliament, five different iterations of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the outsourcing of Ofsted inspections, a change of government and more employment legislation than the Magna Carta.
Having grown up in an environment where Microsoft, Apple and Intel have been changing the world for fun, I was no stranger to the need to adapt and improve. However, with the arrival and departure of each Minister has come inevitable change, sometimes with no discernible purpose other than to put a new stake in the ground.
Undoubtedly, when I look back over the last 10 years, there have been many positives for childcare and for families generally; the evolution of the Early Years Foundation Stage, maternity leave extended to 12 months, early years funding for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, tax credit incentives, the drive to professionalise the early years work force and the first ever Children Act of Parliament in 2006. This has been an exciting time, with the outcomes for children continuing to be high on the political agenda. However, despite all of these positive baby steps forward for the sector, I can’t help but feel we take one and half toddler steps backwards.
Now I’m sure the new Minister for Children, Mr Gyimah, will have a copy of ABC magazine on his coffee table in Westminster; so ever optimistic, I would just like to replay some of the perennial questions I have heard posed to his predecessors by childcare professionals and parents alike, and hope that he is in post long enough to make a difference.
For example, according to the Daycare Trust, why is it that families in the UK spend around 25% of their net income on childcare, when in the rest of Europe the average spend is about 12%. Why in the UK are maternal levels of unemployment some of the worst in the OECD? Why does the £7 billion exchequer budget for childcare in the UK result in providers having to subsidise the early years funding for 2, 3 and 4 year olds? Why are we continuing to lower the age for children to enter school, when clearly in many cases they are not ready? Why does the tax and benefit system often penalise parents and carers who wish to return to work after maternity leave?
No-one is denying that these are complex issues with foundations going back decades, and clearly there have been many political agendas along the way. Not for one minute would I dare to say to Mr Gyimah that after 10 years of playing “ What’s the Time Mr Wolf? “, do I have the perfect strategy on what to do next.
The Elmer in the room for all political parties is that here in the UK, a significant proportion of care and education for children under five is with the private, voluntary and independent sector, as indeed it is in most OECD countries. Successive governments from Clement Attlee onwards have allowed and encouraged this to happen. As a nursery proprietor and businessman of 35 years, it seems clear to me that no-one comes into childcare expecting to float on the London Stock Exchange. This is a sector built by passionate people with one very clear objective, to improve the lives of children.
The key message for government today is to listen more sympathetically to what the childcare sector and families are saying and at the same time level the playing field between public and private provision. When Elizabeth Truss the previous Minister for Children proposed that childcare professionals could look after 6 toddlers per practitioner, or that childminders needed agencies, it shouldn’t have taken nearly a year of campaigning by the sector to see that these one sided initiatives were unworkable.
Unfortunately, it appears that in an effort to achieve social, educational and economic aims, successive Ministers for Early Years, like transient football managers, keep changing the formation and the plan, when actually what we need is a period of Alex Ferguson stability.
We all want children to receive high quality, affordable early education and care that will ultimately give them the skills to positively shape their lives. We’d all like to close the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers. We’d all like parents and carers to be able to make their work / life choices where childcare does not cost more than the average monthly mortgage, as it does in 2014. We all want children who need special care and attention not to be left behind.
Government and local authority intervention in the public and private childcare market has many benefits for families and providers. However, what we need now more than anything, is a consistent, predictable and collaborative approach if further progress is to be achieved.