Childcare Is Already A Game Changer


  Why Did The BBC Ignore The Evidence On Improvements In The Sector asks the Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh

By John M. Davis 
This article is a response to a BBC report on early years provision on the 8th of August. 

In contrast to the BBC report the article illustrates the great improvements that have been a/brhieved in the sector and outlines the positive, progressive and open approach to change taken by Childhood Practitioners who lead early years and out of school provision. 

  Why Did The BBC Ignore The Evidence On Improvements In The Sector asks the Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh

By John M. Davis 
This article is a response to a BBC report on early years provision on the 8th of August. 

In contrast to the BBC report the article illustrates the great improvements that have been achieved in the sector and outlines the positive, progressive and open approach to change taken by Childhood Practitioners who lead early years and out of school provision.

2014 brought the 10th anniversary of the 2004 return to work of early years professionals who had been involved in a year-long industrial dispute over pay and status.   The strike victory led to pay re-grading, a Government review of early years and the agreement to develop a degree led-profession. The early years’ workers strike also led to the development of a national qualifications framework to strengthen career opportunities that enabled greater movement of staff between early years day centres, out of school care and children’s centres.  

Childcare is the game changer in the referendum because it is this sector where Westminster and Holyrood collide and where the Yes supporters can speak across the bluff and bluster of the NO campaign to women voters and to all families.  Childcare tax credits were introduced through Westminster but the Scottish Government also provides funding for childcare.  The sector is influenced by decisions made in both Parliaments – with Holyrood currently setting a much more progressive agenda than Westminster. 

You would think that with both Parliaments interested in the topic that the sector would be well funded – Yet, Scottish parents spend 27% of household income on childcare compared to an OECD average of 12%.  This needs to change. If there is a Yes vote the Scottish Government now aims that: by the end of the first Parliament to ensure that all three and four year olds and vulnerable two year olds will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare a year (the same amount of time as children spend in primary school) and by the end of the second Parliament to ensure that all children from one to school age will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare per year. 

If you work in the sector or have aspirations to work with children think on this statement from the Scottish Government white paper page 196: ‘the expansion of childcare will provide around 35,000 new jobs – that will more than double the work force. Investment will also cover regulation, inspection and ensure the quality of expanded provision through the functions of Education Scotland, the Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Social Services Council’.  The sector will require increased numbers of workers and leaders at all levels – if you are a young person interested in working with children this could be the biggest job opportunity you will see in your life time.

The BBC report on the 8th of August indicated that 12,000 parents were on waiting lists for childcare and that many mothers struggled to locate full-time childcare.  The BBC report suggests the sector has problems in relation to its funding and availability.  The BBC report questioned if local authorities could meet the requirement to increase provision for three to five year-olds from 475 hours per year to 600 and to extend provision to vulnerable two-year-olds. 

How big are those problems? There is a definite hint of project fear about the BBC report.  The Family and Childcare trust 2014 report recognised that there was still a lack of availability in some parts of Scotland but more positively indicated that: 74% of local authorities were confident of meeting their targets, there had been year on year improvements in availability and much progress had been made over the last 15 years to increase the availability, affordability and quality of childcare in Scotland. 

We are already well along the road to improving quality in the sector, so it was interesting that the BBC report chose not to recognise and celebrate the improvements that have taken place.  It would be nice to have an explanation as to why the BBC ignored more positive stories such as that in Nursery World June 30th this year regarding the impact The Ba Childhood Practice qualification on the sector.  I think they owe an apology to all the professionals in the sector (the vast majority women) that have pulled up their sleeves and put their own families through stress to achieve their BA Childhood Practice degrees and improve the quality of provision. 

Indeed, we have been here before during the 2003-2004 strike, when the Evening News wrote unfair copy, those professionals were happy enough to turn up at the door of the Evening News to hold journalists to account. 

A fairer BBC report would have recognised the step by step improvements that have taken place. A fairer report would have recognised the big changes that have taken place in Scotland since the OECD International report Starting Strong, showed that quality early years provision requires subsidised access, a unified workforce, a single regulatory framework, and the development of an integrative way of working with communities that merges our ideas of education and care – in the last 10 years in Scotland we have to a great extent achieved all of these things. 

Childhood Practice – Evidence Of Improvement:
In 2007 the Standard for Childhood Practice was published which provided the basis for the BA Childhood Practice and other qualifications in the sector.  The BA Childhood Practice qualification is almost unique in the way it combines creative work-based learning and flexible part-time provision with recognition of further education qualifications and the ability to gain advanced entry beyond the first year at University. 

The degree enables practitioners, many from working class communities, who may not have achieved lots of school based qualifications to follow a pathway to University that can start with simply volunteering for a local provider.  It is based on the idea that by enabling Universities to collaborate with further education providers and vocational training organisations we can open up University degrees to non-traditional entrants.

In a post-Yes Scotland, built on a mantra for free education, we will need more of such qualifications that that are practical, vocational and have a career structure.  Importantly, such qualifications assume anyone who receives adequate support can move along the pathway to obtaining a degree, whatever their starting point.

By 2011 leaders and managers of childcare and education services were required to have taken or be studying for the degree by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).  10 years ago there were concerns about the quality of care and education provided across different early years providers (e.g. private, voluntary and public) but this year the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) Study found that the type of provider did not greatly influence the educational outcome of children (when factors such as parental income were taken into account) and that the key indicator that influenced children’s outcomes such as primary school language ability was whether the provider was highly rated on the Care Inspectorate’s theme of ‘care and support’.  

Care and Support Theme, Care Inspectorate Scotland:

  • We ensure that parents and families participate in assessing and improving the quality of care and support provided by the service.
  • We enable service users to make individual choices and ensure that every service user can be supported to achieve their potential.
  • We ensure that service users’ health and wellbeing needs are met.
  • We use a range of communication methods to ensure we meet the needs of service users.

This finding suggests that, in recent years, there has been a levelling out of quality across private, public and voluntary sectors.  Indeed, the professionals who have developed the sector over the last 10 years should be very proud of this finding as it indicates that the huge amount of training and qualifications carried out by workers has resulted in levelling of quality between providers from different parts of the sector. 

The GUS study indicated that quality early years providers by impacting on language ability at school may in time reduce the impact of socio-economic inequality.  The GUS study also found that children who go to providers in less economically advantaged areas are just as likely to receive as good a service as those who go to services in economically wealthier areas – this means we have created a starting point for a fairer and more equal Scotland. 

The GUS study reported that 67% of children experience a provider rated as very good or excellent for care and support and 28% attend providers rated as good for care and support – that’s 95% good or above.  However, we should not be complacent for example there was some indication that the private sector was still catching up on the full range of quality indicators e.g. 16% of children in the GUS study who attended a private pre-school setting had a provider who scored five or six against all four Care Inspectorate quality themes compared with 37% of children who attended a LA primary school nursery class.  The GUS study has a short time lag in it and we would expect these figures to narrow as the full impact of recently taken qualifications work through. 

Reports published by the Scottish Social Services Council in 2014 have provided data on the improvements that have been achieved in the sector.  Taking The First Steps – Is Childhood Practice Working? demonstrates the impact of qualifications on children’s rights, integrated working, creative pedagogy, etc. and Knowledge, Confidence and Leadership: Childhood Practice in Action confirms that qualified early years and child care workers give children the best possible start in life and indicates that, since the SSSC Register started, qualification levels for early years professionals have gone from 55% to 89% with the remaining 11% working towards their qualification.  Why did the BBC not put this information in their report?

The ‘Knowledge Confidence and Leadership’ report states. ‘There is now a suite of awards: degree, professional development award and the postgraduate diploma, delivered by 12 providers across Scotland. All are work based, building on non-traditional learning to make access to higher education much more achievable and opening up a new world of opportunity… …Our work has gained European and International recognition, promoting Scotland as a world class provider of solutions for skills development in the early years field.’.

The BBC needs to explain why their report chose to ignore this International recognition.  The ‘Taking The First Steps’ report shows the impact of the Childhood Practice degree on early years workers’ knowledge, confidence and leadership skills and argues that they now more collaboratively work with children, parents and other professionals.  1200 people, mainly women, have worked extremely hard to achieve the new Childhood Practice degree qualification

Childhood Practitioners take a contemporary approach to their work and embrace scepticism and ambiguity. The degree supports them to question dogma, consider the pros and cons of different approaches and flexibly work through the uncertainties of everyday situations.  They are not encouraged to adopt uniform approaches, make grandiose claims or use tick box techniques. 

One of the biggest changes achieved relates to the way managers approach staff.  In the early days many work places had bullying cultures and were very hierarchical.  In contrast, the qualification encourages practitioners to engage with ideas of social justice and strength-based working and to support children, families and staff members to employ their resources to develop and promote innovative ways of collaboratively resolving everyday life problems. 

The ‘Taking the First Steps’ report demonstrates a significant increase in techniques of devolved leadership and service users participation.  It illustrates the abilities of all staff, children and parents whatever their back ground to lead the direction that provision takes.  The Childhood Practice degree has had an impact on managers and settings in relation to delivering a creative curriculum, enabling participatory leadership, listening to parents, promoting the views of children and putting knowledge of children’s rights into practice.  It has enabled professionals to be more thoughtful, gain greater status in their local areas, gain employment opportunities and build much stronger relationships with parents and children. 

The research indicated that in some local authorities Childhood practitioners had taken over management roles from teachers and social workers.  A very important aspect of this process has been that people who take the Childhood Practice qualification tend to live in the areas that they work.  Hence, they are better placed to find and recognise strengths among families, are experienced at negotiating their way through local problems and already understand the community settings where service users live. This means they are better placed to develop trusting, supportive and caring relationships with children and parents.

Yet, two major negative issues emerged from the research.  Firstly, not all local authorities have enabled Childhood Practitioners to apply for promoted posts and Secondly, Childhood Practitioners still indicate that they experience differentials in pay compared to other professions.  The quickest way to address these pay and opportunity deficits is to increase funding in the sector – the Scottish Government have clear plans on how to do this in their white paper.  So if you are reading this article and you are working in early years or out of school care and you are concerned about your pay levels – the message is clear – you should consider voting Yes. 

The Way Ahead In the Sector – How Do We Avoid Schoolification
It should be noted that the sector does not only cover early years. Out of school care professionals are also working extremely hard to increase positive outcomes for children between school age and 16 years of age. Questions arise over how the Scottish Government is going to fund out of school care to ensure that gains for early years childcare are replicated with children of primary and secondary school age.  The Scottish Government need to make clear how a Yes vote will also enables them to increase funding for school care from the growth in the economy stimulated by increased childcare.

Care And Education A Diverse Sector:

  • Around 30,000 early years and childcare workers in Scotland provide day care, learning and development support to children.
  • They work directly with parents, children and other professionals in early years or out of school settings and see children on a daily basis, sometimes 360 days a year. 
  • Centres cover a variety of types, including education authority nursery schools, nursery classes, family and children’s centres, and private and voluntary centres.

Research carried out in Scotland has for many years pointed for the need to look at universalising childcare and to simplify the funding mechanism by having us pay for it through our taxes.  For example, Children in Scotland have several publications on the subject.  Researchers have different positions on how universalisation might be achieved.  Some have argued education and childcare should be merged into the schooling system.  Others have questioned the dangers of schoolification. The have concerns that quality will drop if the sector is merged with education and becomes too closely aligned with primary school management and performance indicators. 

A Government review is currently examining such concerns.  It will be interesting to see what emerges and how the review balances contemporary ideas concerning local community leadership over the suggestion that every childcare providers should be managed within local authority structures.  Currently a half-way house exists where providers sign up as local authority partners and the pros and cons of this approach need to be researched in more detail. 

This question of schoolification is an important point which, sadly as a former member of the Labour Party, I am not sure their MSPs get.  For example, I was at a conference where a labour spokesperson was asked by one of our students what she felt was needed in the sector to boost the use of creative pedagogy.

The spokesperson was flustered for a moment and then said I believe in the 3rs – the spokesperson, thus, clearly indicated that she didn’t have a clue about the sector, hadn’t done her home-work and could only advocate out dated schoolification dogma that had no relevance for the audience.  We need to question any solution that advocates a take-over of early years by schooling and recognise the leaders that have developed within the sector who can clearly explain how creative pedagogy differs from school based-learning. 

The Education Scotland Making the Difference 2012 report highlighted the impact that Childhood Practice has had on the understanding of staff and learning experiences of children. Successful providers were identified as having managers that promoted: strong leadership, self-evaluation, reflexive practice, staff development and participatory improvements with children.

The report indicated that managers with the Childhood Practice degrees were equivalent to teachers who had post-graduate qualifications in early years and that teachers with no experience of early years methodology should not be leading the settings.  The Scottish government have thanked the Childhood Practitioners for their efforts, the SSSC have produced a video to celebrate their work and the media have almost completely ignored the story.  The BBC need to explain why in their report they choose to ignore the achievements of these professionals?

Concluding Thoughts – Lets Value Childhood Practitioners As Game Changers
The Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study indicated that, after a certain point, spending more time in childcare services is unlikely to reduce socio-economic disadvantage – therefore we should be clear and honest that we aim to increase the child care hours available to families because of it has massive gains for women and the economy. 

Childhood Practitioners are now much more sensitive to children’s aspirations, ideas and identities, they are much more able to promote outdoor and adult-free play but we should ensure that if children are going to be spending more hours in childcare, the themselves placed at the centre of making their experience more enjoyable and meaningful. 

This article has suggested that BBC seems oblivious to the improvements brought about by Childhood Practitioners.  In Lesley Riddoch’s book Blossom she questions the perception that Scots are unable to make dreams a reality, suggests that no one can fix other people and argues that a Government who believes in the ability of the people should not micromanage them.  The shift in childcare and education came from within it was not micromanaged – the Government supported the change and listened to the sector.

Improvements in provision, qualifications and practice came about because Childhood Practitioners in Scotland, post-industrial action, rolled up their sleeves and got on with improving things.  They adopted an openness to change and demonstrate a huge generosity of spirit.  The Childhood Practice qualification helped the process of change but the people on the ground did all the hard work. 

The Childhood Practice qualification teaches us that Universities should not be the preserve of middle classes academics and that innovative course design can enable local people to tailor learning to their own context. The research demonstrates that Childcare is already a game changer in Scotland – let no-one tell you otherwise.  The sector seeks to address issue of inequality, now focusses on children’s aspirations and holds the potential to liberate women and our economy.  By voting Yes, you will give recognition to the journey so far, celebrate the achievements of the committed professionals in the sector and encourage the quiet revolution to continue.

John M. Davis – Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh. 
He is co-author of the recent Scottish Social Services Council Report: Taking The First Steps – Is Childhood Practice Working?