The government say it wants to improve early years child care.
But its policies appear at odds with each other, argues Hilary
Four years ago the Prime Minister wrote in the consultation
paper Meeting the Childcare Challenge that good quality child care
“…matters to us all. To our children who deserve the best
start in life.”1 By 2001 there were child care places
for one in seven children under eight compared with one in nine in
1997. Employed parents using formal care now have greater financial
assistance with the cost of child care through the tax credit
system. There is more funding for child care for student parents.
There are also area-based programmes targeted on poor children
living in deprived areas where need cannot be translated into
effective demand to attract private for-profit nurseries because
parents are too poor.
This is a big improvement. However, there is still a long way to
go before there is “good quality, affordable child care for
children aged 0 to 14 in every neighbourhood”. In 2001 the number
of child care places grew by only 2 per cent, and levels of
provision vary greatly from one part of the country to another. We
could as easily talk of postcode child care as we do postcode
There are several issues that the government’s Childcare
Commission should address. First, the main objective of child care
services is unclear. Is it to enhance the development of children
or is the main purpose to enable mothers to go to work?
These objectives may conflict. For example, currently the
employment status of the parents is the key determinant of access
to financial help with the cost of child care. Immediately a parent
becomes unemployed the tax credit ceases, so if you lost your job
you would lose the money for the nursery place, with the
childminder or after-school scheme. This is not good for children,
the parent who needs time to look for another job, the child care
provider whose income will be unpredictable, or the child care
Access to the special schemes in poorer areas may be free and is
not linked so closely to parent’s employment. These are more
concerned to improve parental skills and enhance children’s health
and development. However, the future of these schemes is uncertain
because their budgets are time-limited or contingent on raising
matching funds. Even the largest programme, Sure Start, only has
funding guaranteed for another three years. This is in stark
contrast to the permanent expansion of part-time, pre-school
education which is free, already available throughout England and
Wales for all four-year-olds whose parents want it, and will be
extended on the same basis to all three year olds. The additional
£2bn involved comes from direct taxation.
The second issue therefore concerns the very different funding,
staffing and location of the care and education of young children.
The consultation paper states: “There is no sensible distinction
between good early education and care: both enhance social and
intellectual development in a safe and caring environment.” The
training, education and career opportunities for child care staff
are very limited compared with teachers. Teachers are highly
qualified, many to degree level, compared with half of child care
workers who are unqualified. Half of those with qualifications have
achieved NVQ level 3. The government aims to get all child care
workers to NVQ level 2 rather than NVQ level 3. But nursery nurses’
earnings are very small. Before the introduction of the minimum
wage, half were earning less than half the minimum rate.
The third issue concerns the problem of the recruitment and
retention of child care staff which is already impeding the growth
of high-quality day care. Four out of five child care providers
experience recruitment difficulties. The pool of unqualified young
women, who traditionally worked in child care until they married
and had children of their own, is shrinking. The government’s
policies are succeeding in increasing girls’ ambitions to gain
qualifications. Childminders who are older and have children of
their own also find there are more and better paid choices open to
them. The child care sector has to compete with nursing, teaching
and social work. Research shows that while staff are highly
committed to child care work and have high levels of job
satisfaction, they worry about the difficulties of developing a
career, the poor pay and how they will manage employment and
An integrated early years service in which workers could move
between health, social care and education would be more likely to
recruit and retain staff. Currently only the Early Excellence
Centres and family centres bring workers in these occupations to
work closely together. None of these have permanent funding. If the
service itself as well as career paths remain fragmented, its
capacity to grow and the quality of care on offer will be
jeopardised. Currently, turnover rates are very high: 25 per cent a
year in day nurseries. Continuity of care and familiarity with the
carers are crucial components of care for all children but
especially for disadvantaged and vulnerable children.
Staff skills need developing to meet the needs of disabled
children. Only one in 20 after-school schemes will accept such
children. There are childminders and nursery nurses with the
necessary training but they are rare and expensive. The Budget
announcement that disabled children cared for at home by an
“approved” carer will be included in the tax credit scheme in
future is welcome but will parents be able to find such a carer?
Career ladders for early years staff have been developed in other
European Union countries based either on full integration or high
levels of co-ordination between care and education. The shift of
responsibility for early years services in the UK to the Department
for Education and Skills is a step in the right direction but only
a first step.
Let us hope the Childcare Commission advises the government to
learn from the EU that good quality, universal and affordable child
care requires substantial public sector investment and involvement
in training – for children’s sake.
1 Department for Education and Skills,
Meeting the Childcare Challenge, Cm 3959, DfES, 1998. See
Hilary Land is professor of family policy and child
welfare at the school for policy studies, University of
Practitioners and politicians need to focus on how to
involve local people if the plethora of government initiatives are
to work, writes Gillian Pugh.
There is much talk of cross-departmental working and joined-up
solutions to joined-up problems, based on the needs of children and
families. Yet each government initiative has to satisfy its own
public service and service delivery agreements, and on the ground
there are so many initiative-related meetings that it is a wonder
there is time to deliver services at all.
The challenge now is to devise an approach to planning,
commissioning, delivering and funding services that is driven by
the needs of children and families, and is truly joined up. So how
can we reconcile a top-down “we know from the evidence what is good
for you” approach, with a bottom-up one that says “in our community
the main issues are lack of leisure provision and high levels of
A recent paper proposes a shift towards involving local people
and agencies in planning, and a focus that is unequivocally on
better outcomes for children.1 It starts from the
premise that there should be broad agreement across government
departments showing what we would expect for all our children –
under six or seven broad headings such as healthy births, success
at school, adequate income and so on.
The four key elements of the approach are:
– Community involvement – communities need to determine their
– Accountability based on agreed outcomes rather than outputs –
not “how many children are getting a service” (outputs) but “what
results are we seeking”.
– Genuine participation by individual children, young people and
families in service planning and delivery.
– Innovative financial strategies – pooling resources to use
funds more flexibly to recognise local priorities.
The report describes some UK approaches that are beginning to
work in this way, and an outcomes approach has also underpinned the
draft strategy of the children and young people’s unit. But can it
permeate the work on the National Service Framework for Children?
And can we all – ministers, council officials, front-line workers –
get off our own patch of turf and really work together, with and
Gillian Pugh is chief executive, Coram
1 D Utting et al, Better
Results for Children and Families: Involving Communities in
Planning Services Based on Outcomes, NCVCCO, 2001