In the early years sector, our diversity is our strength. We have individual childminders working from their homes with small groups of children, we have sessional playgroups based in multi-use community buildings, there is full day provision in nurseries, schools and children’s centres. We also have connected settings collaborating in hubs, and emerging, small, medium and large chains. There are super chains too, international and huge, with very many settings attracting capital investment funds. Early years and childcare is a local and global concern.
That’s the good news. Kind of. Our diversity is also our weakness and biggest challenge. It means we cannot compare like-for-like. You cannot compare a dinghy with a cruise liner. They both do the same job; they transport someone from A to B, over water. But in dramatically different ways. This leads to all sorts of inequalities and practical barriers.
It makes the job of government deciding what and how to fund such difference enormously challenging and something that results in many on the receiving end considering it to be unsatisfactory. When it comes to funding, there is a lot people don’t agree on. Yet we are asking everyone in the sector, regardless of the model to work with children in exactly the same ways, for the consistent outcomes. We can agree on that.
There is a place for all types of settings when they meet the needs of the parents in the local community who need, want and prefer to use them. All should have equal value. Surely more can be done to take the best of what we have and get rid of the worst of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Economies of scale afforded in larger organisations allow for the capacity and ability to grow and develop, and to participate in the wider roles of the early years practitioner. By that I mean things like getting involved in partnership working, teams around the child, early identification and intervention, and connecting with other professionals who can provide specialist input. This takes time and money, something not everyone has.
There are things that are taken for granted in early years that we don’t see later on in school-age learning. For one, children don’t usually attend more than one school at a time for their primary or secondary education. And the school workforce has a recognised status and structure, pay scale and qualifications framework. Most schools look and feel the same. There isn’t the diversity there is across early years. I am wondering whether these established trends for multiple provider use are sustainable, or indeed in train with changing parental preferences in a COVID-19 and post lockdown context. Will we see a strong demand for single-use settings and will this influence parental choices and provider delivery models? Workforce reform has long been called for and remains something to be addressed so equality and quality is achieved once and for all. The solutions should not be to turn every provider into a cruise liner, or a dinghy for that matter, but if we don’t manage the market and the workforce to protect diversity and choice, there will be no real choice left.