2007 - 2021

A Plan for Equality in Early Learning

Childcare Policy — Infographics-03-1Commomweal’s plan for equality in early learning in Scotland.

200 years ago, Robert Owen opened the first formalised pre-school education centre in the UK as part of his utopian socialist project in New Lanark. Owen’s approach as an educationalist, based on teachers encouraging the children to enjoy themselves and engage with the world playfully, was light years ahead of the strict discipline and punishment approach that lasted in the UK into the post-war era.

Therefore in one sense the approach of Common Weal towards early years’ education, detailed in our new report An Equal Start, has a connection to a very old Scottish educational tradition of Owenism. However, in another sense our report ventures into very new and unchartered territory.

In all of those years since 1816, it is not until near the turn of the 21st century that early learning and care has begun to be taken seriously as a matter for, and the responsibility of, society, and therefore worthy of public expenditure.

As increasing numbers of working mothers entered the workforce in the 80’s and 90’s, usually informal solutions were found for the looking after of pre-school children.

Only with the election of the Labour government in 1997 did pre-school settings begin to be looked at as an important site for young children’s educational development.

Since devolution, there has been a continual march of progress on childcare in Scotland across successive administrations. The number of free hours increased from 412.5 hours per year to 475, 570, and 600 for vulnerable 2 year-old’s as well as 3 and 4’s. The sector has become increasingly well qualified, standards have risen across the board and modern early years’ practises, including emphasising the importance of play, have become common.

Over the past 10 years the scientific understanding of the importance of early years’ in shaping the cognitive abilities of young children and the need to stop educational inequalities from becoming embedded before kids reach primary one has been part of shaping this progression.

Gender attitudes towards parent roles have also changed: it is no longer acceptable to expect mothers to have to put their career on ice or give it up all together once they give birth.

And therefore as expectations have changed quickly, it is becoming increasingly noticeable that the childcare revolution is not even halfway finished.

Since the Great Recession in 2008, childcare costs have mushroomed while wages have stagnated. The average costs for parents in Scotland now stand at 27 per cent of their income. Childcare competes with housing as a family’s biggest expense, and for many low income parents prices them out of employment.

Childcare Policy — Infographics-04

This has added to the pressure for reform, and enticed politicians to promise increases in the number of free hours available. The SNP has committed to doubling the number of free hours to 30 per week (1140 per year) by the end of the decade for all 3-4 year old’s and vulnerable 2 year old’s. The move is the most rapid increase in state entitlement to early learning and care since devolution, and gets full-time parents much closer towards fully funded childcare.

Such speedy change comes up against a childcare system that has been built on steady progress. And this is where the problem lies: reforming the number of free hours parents can access is all well and good, but without reforming the structure of childcare itself it may not be viable in practise. Currently, there isn’t enough qualified staff, childcare centres and full day places available, not by a long shot.

An Equal Start’s key message is that the Scottish Government should embrace the challenge and see it as an opportunity: a chance to complete the childcare revolution and put it on the same footing as school education.

In our schools, we wouldn’t accept some children going to private providers (unless you’re rich). We wouldn’t accept some staff being well qualified and others not. We wouldn’t accept some childcare centre places providing all day care and others providing only half day. We wouldn’t accept some teachers being paid poverty wages.

It follows that if these things are unacceptable at school level, and if early years is just as important for a child’s development, they shouldn’t be acceptable in the childcare sector either.

An Equal Start provides a solution that can be achieved within the timeframe and financial envelope the Scottish Government has given itself to transition to 30 free hours per week by 2020.

Part 1 looks in detail at the scale of the challenge, arguing that the childcare sector is already creaking from the weight of 600 free hours, and local authorities are not well placed to carry out the huge investment needed to make the transition happen in four short years.

Furthermore, if the Scottish Government attempt to use the private sector and child minders to shoulder the increased capacity burden there is a clear and present danger that standards will fall.

In Part 2, we blueprint our two-part plan for moving to 30 hours: first, a huge Scottish Government led capital investment programme to build the new childcare centres across Scotland to meet demand and rapidly investing in the skills needed for new staff so that the sector is 100 per cent degree-level qualified by 2030.

Second, the creation of a National Childcare Service that will create a uniform set of standards across Scotland for pay scales, qualifications, the curriculum, opening and closing times, rates for parent paid hours and more. The National Childcare Service would deliver al 30 free hours in public provision, and it is affordable within the planned budget.

Part 3 makes the case for a Common Weal vision for early years’ education, based on a national early years curriculum that promotes the best practise from the Swedish and New Zealand world renowned early years practises. We look in detail at the complex issue of qualifications, and make the case for a specifically early years’ degree-level sector.

Part 4 looks to the future progress that will still need to be made. We argue for an ultimate target of having an entirely free at the point of use childcare sector for 1-4 year old’s, a comprehensive after-school strategy for all 0-16 year old’s, school holiday childcare and the development of more bottom up assessment measures.

We believe the report, which was informed and inspired by a Common Weal ‘Policy Lab’ of professionals, academics, parents and policy makers, is the first to blueprint a costed plan for how to deliver 30 free hours of childcare in Scotland. If the plan is implemented, we’re confident it would measurably improve quality of life in Scotland for parents, young children and childhood professionals.

Comments (4)

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  1. elaine fraser says:

    I am very interested in this whole area of child development and child care provision and I have many questions. I know this can be a sensitive subject so bear with me.

    First how does what we understand about child development and in particular attachment theory fit in with childcare proposals?

    Have we missed the bus ? Are we not moving into a future where there will be less jobs for everyone ( more leisure time ) as technology takes over ?

    How can we persuade people to train to degree level to go into this role while at the same time encouraging parents to leave it ?

    What about feminist economists theory on womens unpaid ‘work’including childcare already contributing so much to the economy ? I was deeply moved by the video tribute to Ailsa Mackay (who I had never heard of before the referendum ) outlining how important woman as ‘provisioner’s to economy as a whole .

    Way back some of us could live on one wage with a mortgage ( just about!) in 2016 our children don’t have that choice because of the lack of affordable housing . Grandparents have to provide unpaid childcare. So if more affordable homes are delivered parents would have more choice in other areas of their lives.

    I have a sister who lives in Sweden . She is now a single parent of four children and holds down two jobs. So I do have some understanding of the Scandinavian model .

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      There is a good argument to be had on more affordable homes for all and the choices available for families. Unfortunately for those at the bottom of the heap this choice does not apply. The average young person, even including some graduates, starts off on a level of pay that will not support a family, even given a house.

      There are several strands that need to be addressed to reduce the inequality in today’s society. The cost of housing, the cost of childcare, the inequality in the standards of education and the iniquitous policy of government subsidising slave labour then reducing welfare without enforcing a living wage are all important.

      They all need to be addressed but as part of a coherent whole rather than as a magic bullet where one fix covers all. Childcare provision, Land reform to reduce building costs, a realistic minimum “Living Wage” are three separate but related steps that need to be taken. All are difficult and have a cost but the Living Wage, while trumpeted in the Budget is still a mirage and under the control of Westminster.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    The ideas expressed here are eminently sensible. In the end it all boils down to the cost. If we can train enough staff to man the required extra centres adequately and if we can resource building them the running cost will still be a significant, although acceptable, burden. Can we find the will and the resources against all the other competing claims?

    This is an area that will fall within the local authority’s budget and control and therein lies the rub. Argyll & Bute presently spends around 65% of it’s budget between Education and Social work; all the other services are minor players. They are trying to reduce the education element by unfilled posts and closing small schools. I wonder what they will do when confronted by the need to provide good, free early years education for all?

    In my view Education in Scotland should be taken under centralised control and be run by an arm’s length organisation that reports directly to a responsible government minister and educational inspectorate.

    Throw that suggestion into the mix and let the fur and feathers fly!

  3. Tila Morris says:

    I warmly welcome the reference back to Robert Owen with his fundamental principles of kindness, compassion and happiness being the prevailing conditions he set for the whole New Lanark community. The Commonweal proposal is much more visionary than any others we have seen recently. Giving children the best start in life by learning through play and enriching experiences is critical to building a better future for Scotland. Nevertheless there are gaps to address. The current policy of introducing standardised testing in school is regressive and will undermine any good work in early years. It will damage our children’s well being by adding unnecessary pressure and it will push teaching practice towards teaching to the test. Worse still it will reinforce the gaps between rich and poor rather than close them up. school does not support parents in work. The school timetable, holidays and in-service days mean that work is only an option for parents that can afford and have access large amounts of before and after school care and holiday provision. Sadly the formality of school is still entrenched in an old culture of discipline and punishment which makes transitions from nursery to school very distressing for children and parents. The school starting age in Scotland is far too young. We have much to learn from our Scandinavian and European neighbours on this. We have a one size fits all approach to school that is failing our young people in large numbers. Homogonising early years offerings into one form may be a step backwards rather than forwards. We need modern day Owenites to bring forward alternative cradle to grave learning that is modeled on best practice from around the world and in Robert Owen’s case involves reviving sound ideals and principles in a modern context. Indeed the Curriculum for Excellence is described as being at a ‘watershed moment’. Returning to its visionary principles is worthwhile. Shining a light on our youth work services might illuminate good practice. They are proven to be effective at developing confidence and motivation in young people and developing future leaders using a wide range of fun and engaging learning experiences, the likes of which Robert Owen would undoubtedly approve. Some of the best examples are often of low cost and volunteer led, which questions to what extent our adult leaders need to be qualified to degree level?

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