I am equally proud of the terms childcare, early learning, early education, pre-school learning, early years, play and playwork, and I use them interchangeably. In the absence of an alternative, of a universally agreed catch-all phrase, I have to. This is the problem. All these words, instead of bringing us together are at risk of tearing us apart. Like many (but not all) in the sector, I place equal value on the terms childcare and early years. And I think this is something parents do too. To suggest equality in them shouldn’t diminish either side of the bargain. Instead, this should bring them and us all in the sector closer together in the intended spirit of the profession. A profession that seeks to support children’s early learning, and provide childcare to help parents and families socially, economically and developmentally.
In our lively debates, colleagues react to each term in different ways, some baulk at the notion of being called a childcarer, arguing their role is much more significant than that. Placing emphasis on their education role, whilst at pains to differentiate early education from that offered later in schools. I agree it is both significant and distinct. But that should not, as a consequence, lessen the value and impact of childcare services and their vital role in supporting children, young people and families in innumerable ways. Through what used to be frequently described as Every Child Matters five outcomes of: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and achieving economic wellbeing.
In recent years, there has been a huge emphasis on government funding of places for children of pre-school age. Not always, actually never, has this funding been attributed to multiple outcomes. Instead, it has been compartmentalised to single or super-focused aims and objectives. For the least advantaged two-year-olds, they have been offered 15 hours of early learning to counter the effect on their educational progress compared to their peers. For all three- and four-year-olds, they have settled on 15 hours of funded early learning a week. For those with working parents who meet the criteria, there is an extra 15 hours topping up to 30 hours. The additional 15 hours though is childcare, not early learning. Not that any practitioner delivering or child benefiting from it should be able to tell the difference. All types of provision is variously offered across home-based, group care, private and school settings, some registered and inspected by Ofsted, some not, and some delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework. Confusing, isn’t it? But the point is it goes a long way to unhelpfully widening the gap between our dual roles.
What can we do? An option would be to call all pre-school provision, ‘early education’ and to cement its position and role as the first steps in a child and young person’s education journey to boot. Regardless of its delivery model, location, registration status or EYFS delivery. Because every engagement in pre-school provision is a learning experience. Everything else from the beginning of school age could be termed ‘childcare’, out of school childcare if we are to be precise, whether it occurs at breakfast, after school or in the holidays. But hang on, every engagement with childcare is a learning experience too. I know that to be true. Perhaps that would be the learning we all need to achieve.