We know more than ever about what helps young children’s
learning and social skills. But can the child care strategy deliver
it, asks Kate Coxon.
Early education matters and the higher its quality the more it
enhances children’s intellectual and social development. Good
outcomes for children are linked to early years settings that
provide a strong educational focus, with teachers working alongside
and supporting less qualified staff.
Two large research projects, the Effective Provision of
Pre-School Education project (Eppe) and the associated Researching
Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (Repey) have identified the
ingredients for high-quality pre-school education (see panel). But
is the government’s child care strategy capable of delivering
Ofsted thinks so. In March 1998, when the child care strategy
was announced, 74 per cent of provision was judged as good, but by
March 2001, this figure had risen to over 93 per cent. In terms of
increasing the number of places for three to five year olds in
settings with a strong educational focus (nursery schools and
classes) the strategy is certainly moving in the right direction.
Director of the Sure Start Unit Naomi Eisenstadt points out that
every four year old now has the offer of free nursery education,
which will be extended to all three year olds from April 2004.
Free nursery education or free child care? The terms are often
used interchangeably – but what is the difference? Sue Owen,
director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National
Children’s Bureau believes the debate has moved on. “There is
no difference: most of us accept that everybody is educating and
everybody is caring, but there is still a funding split between
nursery education and child care, which isn’t helpful.”
Most new places have been created in school nursery classes, but
there is a catch: a “place” often covers just two and a half hours
per day. This is a headache for parents at work. The Sure Start
Unit is aware of the difficulties: “The task now is to try and tie
this up with the needs of working parents, making sure that we
don’t sacrifice quality,” says Eisenstadt.
Quality remains the key concern for professor Iram
Siraj-Blatchford, one of the authors of the Eppe research, who says
there are tensions in the way early education is mixed up with the
issue of child care for working parents. “There is a strong lobby
within government for getting women into paid employment, but we
need some more reflection on what represents good quality for
children.” She is anxious that quality may be overlooked in the
rush to recruit staff and meet the child care strategy’s
targets for new child care places.
The DfES cites the appointment of Lesley Staggs, the first
national director of the foundation stage for three to five year
olds, as evidence of how seriously it takes the early years.
The Eppe research found that while good quality can be found
across all types of early years settings, outcomes for children
were better in integrated settings which combine education and
child care with other services such as family support. Integrated
centres are high on the Department for Education and Skills’s
agenda but universal provision is a long way off. However, Sure
Start children’s centres that combine full child care with
the delivery of the foundation stage, as well as parent support and
employment advice, are being set up in deprived areas.
Eisenstadt adds that the government is interested in looking at
ways of supporting all parents – not just those not working – to
improve how they help their children learn.
Childminders are unhappy with their profile in early education
research. “We’d like to see research such as Eppe focus on
accredited childminders, who have undertaken extra training and are
approved for the purposes of the nursery education grant,” says Sue
Griffin, training manager for the National Childminding
Association. She also feels that many of the strengths of
childminding, such as continuity of care in a local community and a
familiar, domestic context for early learning are overlooked by
Policy seems research-driven but there are gaps. The Eppe
research uncovered a huge variety in quality of early years
settings, within and across the public, private and voluntary
sectors. Some professionals are critical of the haphazard training
structure for the child care workforce which has a number of routes
leading to a bewildering array of qualifications – from Cache
awards, NVQs, NNEBs to degrees in early childhood studies. It is
hoped that the creation of a new children’s workforce unit,
as outlined in the green paper Every Child Matters, will provide
some answers to the training problem.
Sue Owen of the National Children’s Bureau says that the
only way to ensure quality in early education is by tackling
head-on the challenges of training, recruiting and retaining staff,
problems which she feels are linked to the question of pay and
working conditions. She is optimistic that the review of national
occupational standards and the green paper will make a difference.
“Staff need to be able to access qualifications that relate clearly
to competences and could lead easily onto other careers, such as
teaching. Currently, pay is not linked to training and
It’s optimistic to expect people to study for
qualifications and develop skills which will have no impact on
their conditions of employment. If we want the benefits of a
professional child care service, we’ll have to find the money
to treat, and pay, those who provide it as professionals.
Research published in October by the DfES found that children
aged three to five whose parents participated in their early
education through the Peers Early Education Partnership (Peep)
achieved systematically five percentage points more in language
comprehension than those who did not. Scores on numbers were higher
by 7.67 percentage points.
About the research projects
The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (Eppe) project
based at the Institute of Education and the University of Oxford is
the first major longitudinal study of a national sample of young
children’s development between the ages of three and seven.
Between 1997 and 2003, over 3,000 children were selected and
tracked from 141 settings. A sample of home children with no or
minimal pre-school experience was used as comparison. In the
associated project, Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early
Years (Repey), 12 of the Eppe settings that were considered
excellent, as well as two reception classes, and 46 “effective”
childminders were then used for in-depth case studies. For children
aged three or four to school age, the research found that:
- Pre-school experience compared with none enhances
- Adult-child interactions that involve “sustained shared
thinking” and open-ended questioning extend children’s
- Good outcomes are linked to shared educational aims with
parents and formative feedback with children.
- Quality was higher overall in integrated settings, nursery
schools and nursery classes.
- Trained teachers were most effective in their interactions with
children and less well-qualified staff were better pedagogues when
supervised by qualified teachers.
- The home learning environment is only moderately associated
with social class: what parents do is more important than who they
- For more information see www.ioe.ac.uk/cdl/eppe/index.htm