img-childcare1What would a community-based, intergenerational approach to early learning and childcare look like? Professor of Childhood Inclusion John Davis and freelance researcher Jamie Mann compare the thinking behind the Common Weal ‘A Book of Ideas’ with perspectives from a Policy Lab on Early Learning and Childcare, which was hosted by the University of Edinburgh on 21 September 2015. 

Visualise an early learning and childcare sector that provides free childcare for cash strapped parents, involves children spending at least 50% of their time outdoors and revolutionises the way we think about the role of community and local spaces.

‘Given the likely long-term decline in retail provision on high streets, vacant retail units might be used to create bright, attractive childcare centres right in the heart of our towns’

The Common Weal ‘A Book of Ideas’ sketches out some clear pointers and exciting ideas for the early learning and childcare sector leading up to the May 2016 Holyrood election, including: universalising the sector into a National Child Care Company, investing in new facilities through a National Investment Bank and using local town planning to create a new generation of state-of-the-art learning centres.

The book argues for innovative ‘participatory learning’ environments that utilise Scotland’s contemporary cultural contexts as a source of inspiration for learning. In so doing, it chimes with views we have encountered at recent events in the field.

A few weeks ago, we collaborated with Katie Gallogly-Swann to run the Common Weal policy lab on early learning and childcare that brought together a diverse group of children, professionals, academics and parents to discuss the way forward in the sector. 

Young children who took part in the lab highlighted the need for participatory working in the sector:

“It’s important that they (professionals) know what the baby or the child’s mind-set is because people have different mindsets and different realities and stuff, so they have to know that.

“Also, adults don’t always know what they are doing.”

“They know stuff [that] we don’t know because we’re growing up and we’re just learning – they’re also learning – they know about them and we know about us.”

Just as adult service users have first-hand experience of how a service can be improved, children know better than anyone that they must be central to how we evolve the early learning and childcare sector.

Shaking-Up Structures

The Common Weal book balances top-down and local-led suggestions when dealing with the practical reality of how we can move from a fragmented to a universal system.

Participants in our policy lab drew from research in the field to promote the idea that while evaluation for change in early learning and care services is important, top-down performance indicators and standardised testing are an anathema to contemporary ideas concerning creativity and innovation in childhood.

They argued that top-down processes can lead to poor work cultures, hierarchies and bullying, all of which block creative learning and form an environment not fit for children (or adults).

Attendees also highlighted, among other issues, the need for:

  • Greater media and political recognition of the huge efforts made over the last decade to improve the quality of provision for children
  • A change in rigid age bands restricting the interaction of children of different ages in early years and out of school provision
  • Greater use of outdoor spaces for play and creative learning
  • A starting age of seven for schooling and greater flexibility surrounding the age children transition from early years to school settings
  • A need for gender balance regarding the numbers of men in the sector
  • Creative learning approaches that blur the boundaries between pre-school, school and out-of-school to ensure that children’s development is not harmed by rigid forms of learning and childcare
  • More integrated and community-based working to streamline processes for parents and children
  • De-politicisation of early learning and childcare and greater cross-party consensus at Holyrood

Tackling The Key Issues

Any advancement in early learning and childcare must address the key concerns of professionals in the sector: status, qualifications and pay.  

Currently, leaders and managers require the Childhood Practice degree-level qualification to register with the Scottish Social Services council, however, some professionals use the degree to move onto promoted positions in other children’s services.

This movement occurs because of pay and status differences between the public and private services – a National Childcare Company could resolve these issues by responding to recent suggestions from the sector. For example, our policy lab called for not-for-profit organisations, nationally recognised pay scales (equitable to teaching, social work, etc.) and greater respect from other professions.

Over time, the knowledge of the 30,000 workers in the sector (in day care and out-of-school) and the 5,000 child-minders, could be significantly increased. In addition, the Scottish government estimated during the referendum that another 35,000 jobs could be produced if we moved to a fully funded system of early learning and childcare. However, such a change would require cross-party consensus to ensure that we can identify the substantial investment that is essential if we are to grow the sector, improve settings and develop new and innovative ways of working.

The Common Weal book argues that the fragmented nature of the sector hides a glaring fact about the economics of childcare in Scotland:

“Sweden spends 1.1 per cent of GDP on childcare… and delivers universally excellent state-run nurseries from the end of parental leave to the start of school, with the average child: staff ratio being 5.3 children to every worker.”

Scotland currently spends the same proportion of GDP on Early Childhood Education and Care – an awful lot of money to get a poorer level of service than Sweden.  Moreover, these statistics raise serious questions about where the profits end up in the Scottish system.

So, can we envisage a movement towards increased pay rates, intergenerational community-based learning and supporting community members of all ages to make up the early learning and childcare sector?

The Common Weal approach complements ideas put forward in the policy lab by calling for the development of a free National Childcare Service by 2021 to free up parents for employment. It also argues for a greater focus on high-quality outdoor play and a National Childcare Company to professionalise child development and create more well-paid jobs – an issue that particularly impacts on the women who make up the majority of the workforce.

Other ideas the book advocates, such as a shorter working week, greater workplace democracy, or a citizen’s income, might enable more men and women of all ages to have greater time and energy to creatively engage as volunteers with community and outdoor participatory learning processes.

UNISON claimed in June that recommendations for a 15-year process of change in the early learning and childcare sector has not been nearly radical enough. We need radical visions, and, crucially, the Commonweal Book provides these, when connecting early learning and childcare to multiple and wide ranging political issues such as: increased wages, collective ownership of land, use of public space, regeneration of high streets and housing renewal.

The sector has been on a decade-long journey from when a major strike highlighted the need for better pay and conditions.  During this time the OECD ‘Starting Strong’ research has highlighted the need for a community-based and integrated approach to childcare.

Recent research has also argued that various Scottish governments have overlooked the connection between early learning and childcare settings and their wider community, as well as the need for well-designed, socio-culturally sensitive and participatory learning environments.  

If children of all ages were involved in participatory learning that breaks down professional boundaries between schools, early learning centres and out of school clubs, while at the same time, citizens were incentivised to be more involved in their communities – what would Scotland begin to look like?

Such will depend on us reaching the conclusion that we should no longer allow the incomes of families and the upbringing of children to be decided by a system that, in part, exploits people for profitability.

The referendum brought childcare to the forefront of current debate, we can’t afford for the challenges and opportunities surrounding early learning and childcare to be kicked into the long grass, or to return merely as a political football.