The board brush recommendations in the children’s commissioner’s report (Best Beginnings July 2020) are difficult to argue with. They include the common calls for more. More funding, more provision for families, more joined up services and more outcomes. The case is well-rehearsed and contains familiar evidence. These arguments are won each time. It’s what happens next that is key and how sustainable these actions prove.
At least we have formal and recognised evidence of need and impact now. It wasn’t the case 20 years ago. We just knew it. There is a necessary focus within the report on supporting children from birth and in their first two years, particularly:
- Relationships with parents and carers
- A safe home
- Language and cognitive development
- Behaviour and self-regulation
- Physical and mental health
As someone who has worked at the front of national implementation of early years entitlements, I would also like to see a growth in provision. For all outcomes, not just attached to a single or artificially differentiated aim like working families or children’s learning outcomes. Learning should be a goal, but it should sit alongside with equal emphasis on health, child development and tackling inequality and disadvantage.
The familiar tale is told in the report, that children can fall behind before they start school. That is correct and it is a strong and cogent argument to invest in early years. But is it just me that wonders why schools are seemingly struggle to close any gap afterwards throughout primary and secondary? After all, they are working with children for 12-14 years after their pre-school years. Sounds like it may be time to do more with the school sector.
The Social Mobility Commission (June 2020) noted there is no national over-arching strategy for early years and child development. Does there need to be? Is it just an easy call to suggest we do? That one is up for debate. I don’t think we need much more top-down directives. I’d prefer for us to have the resources and freedoms to do what we know best locally. Could or should this be driven by local government, such as the Greater Manchester example cited on page 20?
I’d like to see a better deal for the early years sector. Of course I would. But to achieve that we need better data. Particularly about the diverse early years delivery chain in the public, voluntary and private sectors (see my blog on dinghies and cruise liners). Research surveys published by sector groups are well-intentioned but in my view they are unreliable and clearly aren’t convincing decision-makers effectively enough. They are letting the side down.
The ideas of hubs in Best Beginnings are a rehash of the Sure Start children’s centre argument we won almost 25 years ago. Instead, is it more important we effect the systemic and practice changes that we know will change lives? Surely this will be more sustainable than bricks and mortar. And it could help us avoid wasting too much time and effort building up an infrastructure, only to see it eroded over the next generation. Too many former children’s centre buildings lay testament to that.
We are still in an over-complicated environment. There’s plenty of services. A lot anyway. Too many unjoined up services and all sorts of things for new parents to learn about and navigate. Something magnified multiple times when a child has SEND. A complex parental journey made even more challenging when families feel their child doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all model.
Laming (2003) told us to break through the artificial barriers between professions involved in children’s services (education, social care and health). I’m paraphrasing of course, but the principle that drove reform back then was about sharing the drive and ambition for shared outcomes for children. We should not and must not lose that. There are plenty of services, midwifery, health visiting, speech and language therapy, troubled families, and if you are lucky children’s centres (or their local equivalent or remodelled version).
The report recognises that not everything it calls for requires new investment, instead it is more about reorganisation. But I know enough about the public sector to know that restructuring is not always welcome or effective. Instead services need the flexibility, the power and the resource to concentrate on delivery and to be given half the chance to innovate and create organically. Without the diversions of ‘flavours of the month’ or knee-jerk reactions to today’s issues. Restructures all too often stymie innovation and demotivate the workforce. Not always, but often. We should all resolve to keep a firm grip on the rudder of the early years ship.
The early years and childcare entitlements are a messy patchwork of criteria led and single-outcome focused initiatives, and the gaps are glaringly obvious when funding stops and other types of support, like Tax Free Childcare, are expected to fill them. They are awkwardly described and enveloped in jargon. Sometimes, indeed often, parents give up as the investment to gain seems disproportionate and overwhelming when there’s plenty of other things to manage. We must do more to make the parent journey through this easier, faster and more rewarding.
Too many times ministers have sought to leave their short-term early years mark. What’s most important here is we ourselves, as a sector, overhaul early years, with full ministerial support for generations to come.
I don’t think parents should have a guarantee of support or a national infrastructure of hubs, that for me is too input focused. Instead we should be more focused on rights and outcomes. Then parents will take their empowerment and we will all achieve what we share as outcomes. And I think the ambition of consistent checks is unachievable, just as consistent Ofsted inspections are a challenge. There’s too many variables in play for that.
But I do agree, that we should have:
- A coherent strategy with a cabinet level minister to help drive and resource it.
- Clear pathways for accessing services for parents.
- Better data that informs decisions in the sector.
- Shared outcomes and intra-sector respect.
- Checks, early identification and coordinated interventions where needed.
- An extended childcare offer, 30 hours universal for two-, three- and four-year-olds for those families that need and want it. Free to the families that use it.
- And more should be done to create a gold-standard early years workforce, and a career strategy integrated with schools, that attracts the professional respect and parity it requires.