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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

Childcare: an early years place for all?

One of the great casualties of the poor relationship between the government and teachers is effective planning. Too often bright – and admirable – ideas fail to sink in because policy makers do not understand the complexities and realities of the system, and practitioners do not see the full intent (getting instead an inevitably slanted version through the media, which ends up alienating them as often as not). This does no one any good – not ministers, who see their policies distorted, not teachers, who feel ‘done to’ and certainly not pupils, who get change rather than improvement.

The chaotic nature of exam reform in recent years is one example, with changes sometimes announced after students have started studying for exams. This risks reforms conflicting with other challenges, like the Ebacc measure putting pressure on recruitment just as that area reaches crisis. The otherwise decent ambition to provide all infant children a free meal in school was complicated by a lack of consideration of catering facilities and dining space in school halls. The removal of levels, the right thing to do, was tarnished by the lack of clarity of what would come after.

I could go on, but what I really want to warn about is the potential for a sequel, and this time with even bigger special effects, in the government’s pledge to extend free childcare for working parents from fifteen to thirty hours. A good idea with two main aspirations: to encourage people back to work and to narrow the gap in education attainment by targeting more early intervention at those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A lack of planning in consultation with the profession puts both of these objectives at risk. The current amounts of revenue funding are inadequate to cover the true cost of provision; nor is there yet sufficient capital funding to increase the space required. This will have two possible effects: school-based providers may decrease the number of spaces they offer – reducing the number of parents who can access childcare – or they may be forced to lower the quality of what they offer, increasing the ratio of children to staff for example, which will prevent the policy from narrowing the gap (because it is high quality early education which helps disadvantaged children catch up with their peers.

This can be tackled with a strong partnership with the profession to pilot and plan. There are example of good practice out there to learn from. Delivery of the policy will undoubtedly require collaboration between the maintained and the private, voluntary and independent sectors. Again, there are examples of good practice we can learn from, but accessing and spreading this knowledge in a timely fashion will be a challenge. Delivering thirty hours of childcare is not simply delivering fifteen hours times two: you need greater variety in activities and you need more facilities like food. The PVI sector has expertise in this.

Let childcare be the policy area in which we learn from past mistakes and plan transparently for success. It certainly has the potential – we are agreed on the ends, we just need to find the best means.


07 September 2015