Early learning lessons from the UK

A report from the front lines of the battle over early learning and child care in the United Kingdom, which appears to be in a similar space as Canada – supported by academic and policy elites, but with too little action on the political side to overcome the great inertia of the existing patchwork system.

Taking great care

We should not allow alarmist headlines about nurseries to panic us into dropping an ambitious and much-needed strategy to tackle child poverty.

Alison Garnham

The report on the neighbourhood nurseries initiative has provoked a surprising degree of hysteria, with some elements of the press painting a picture of a generation of feral, foot-stamping toddlers emerging from the nation’s childcare settings. But what the report actually shows is that the government programme has been a great success. Around half of the parents who sent their children to neighbourhood nurseries had never used formal childcare before, and among them were parents from some of the most disadvantaged groups in society.This is great news for the government’s national childcare strategy, because, to date, these are the groups which have shown much slower take-up of childcare, and who live in areas where childcare is at its scarcest.

The report also found that the quality of care in neighbourhood nurseries was pretty good, and this is an area the government is working on. The finding that long hours of group care affects children’s behaviour is not new and echoes earlier findings. The effect (on a small minority) is described only as “significant but modest”. A far cry from “Nurseries are turning our children into yobs,” as one tabloid newspaper shrieked from its front page on Wednesday.

Towards the end of the ten-year national childcare strategy, we would expect to see a picture of much-improved childcare in the UK. At the moment, research will still be picking up on the fact that we’ve started from a very low base, with almost no publicly-funded childcare and one of the worst records in Europe.

But, we need to be ambitious and follow the Nordic countries, where nurseries provide the best mixture of care and learning. Where childcare environments are led by properly-qualified teachers, the outcomes for children are excellent, especially for disadvantaged children. And this is the age to start, if we want to drive up educational achievement and prevent future poverty.

We can’t hope to end child poverty unless we have a national childcare infrastructure to match the best in Europe. Parents will not have the confidence to move into employment unless they are sure of the quality of their children’s care.

The absence of childcare in this country has for too long been a brake on the ambitions of women, especially lone mothers, who have therefore been locked out of the labour market. No one is suggesting wall-to-wall, dawn-till-dusk childcare – strengthening work-life balance will be of the essence, so mothers and fathers can spend more time with their children – particularly in the early years. The government has made a good start, but there is still more to do to establish a combination of leave and pay that offers parents real choices.

It is hard to understand the desire in some quarters to lambast the national childcare strategy and write off this ambitious ten-year plan only two years down the line. Who would want to torpedo it at this stage? I can only think it’s those who want parents to return to the home in droves. But the genie is already out of the bottle. Most women want and need to work, and mortgages need to be paid! And some of us have our sights set even higher on achieving an entitlement to the highest quality childcare for all our children and – as members of the End Child Poverty campaign – ending child poverty.

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