A Plan for Equality in Early Learning
Commomweal’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.
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.