Enabling Environments

Early years policy – Where has the last decade left us?

  • Early years policy – Where has the last decade left us?

A lot has happened in the last 10 years, but it’s clear that much remains to be done, says June O’Sullivan…

Like now we began the decade that has just ended with a new government: the Coalition led by Nick and Dave.

Do you remember the bonhomie and the charm on that day in May when they formed a partnership and walked together into Downing Street, the political couple who later consciously uncoupled and faded into political history, leaving us with a Brexit mess?

Back then, early years was on the agenda.

Graham Allen produced his neuroscience research that showed the benefit of early intervention, and the government started a series of actions that would effectively move the school starting age forward so that all three- and four-year-olds could access 15 hours a week of state-funded early education.

This was later extended to disadvantaged two-year-olds. The policy worked for three- and four-year-olds because now nearly 100% of them attend school.

The question we still face is, is this good for them? Are schools the right places for our very young children?

Funding the policy became an issue. We had a number of reports, including the rather annoyingly titled More Great Childcare and More Affordable Childcare.

Parents accessed their 20p contribution through the tax-free childcare scheme for working families where each parent earns less than £150,000 a year.

The sector began negotiations with the DfE, which agreed everything through an early years strategic partnership led by 4Children (Oh where are they now?).

This alliance led by the gonged and promoted never worked hard enough or well enough to bring the sector together, so agreements were made that caused division and the agenda remains stuck in a treacle pudding of insufficient funding, status and support today.

In search of improvement

Early in the decade I was a member of Cathy Nutbrown’s panel; we looked at the suitability of early years qualifications – specifically whether the quality was consistent and of a standard that would safely guarantee the expansion of early years childcare and education.

Do you remember the EYPS and EYTS? We are still challenged by quality issues and a recruitment crisis that resulted in one of our many ministers refusing to bend on the issue of entry requirements.

It took three ministers to unravel a decision that with good listening and intelligent planning could have actually worked…

As our Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove looked to the US and their charter schools as the way forward to solve the decline in education in the UK.

Free schools and academy chains were the order of the day and any objection was politely ignored.

He didn’t pay much attention to early years but presided over the revised framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, led by Dame Claire Tickell, and Ofsted inspection reviews that later resulted in the setting up of the Ofsted Big Conversations to counter an aggressive and intransigent management style.

While all this was happening there were other reports, produced by Professor Michael Marmot and Frank Field, warning about the increase in poverty among working families, the impact of the closure of children’s centres, and the decline in mental health, confident parenting and the need to pay attention to the divisions emerging like tectonic cracks across our society.

Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ stayed small but there were shifts away from the poison of big-business greed.

Sadly, this was driven not by good intentions but by bad banks and the demise of iconic brands like HMV and Thomas Cook.

While the passing of the Social Value Act has given us reason to celebrate, it’s clear that there remains much to do in the decade to come if we are to overcome the challenges we still face.


June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit June’s blog at leyf.org.uk/junes-blog or connect on Twitter @JuneOSullivan.

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