Valuing the Cs in Early Childhood Education and Care
Recently, in government and in the media, there has been a lot of talk about the high cost of childcare in England. Given rising household costs and the threat of a recession, this is hardly surprising. But the government’s solution – to reduce the number of children an adult can care for in a bid to reduce the cost to parents – leads to a misperception of the importance of early childhood carers when it comes to outcomes for young children.
Early educators are understandably concerned about what the proposed changes may mean for them in practice. When the government seems to view early childhood care as child care, it’s bad for the industry and bad for the kids. The sector is already under great pressure, with serious recruitment and retention problems (8 out of 10 establishments are struggling to recruit staff and more than a third of respondents are considering leaving the sector). In this context, politics can backfire and harm an already fragile sector.
Many early childhood practitioners have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic with very little recognition. Many of them have left the sector, tired of low salaries and poor status or because they are unable to balance the books trying to operate in a climate where funding does not cover the real costs of management. of a child care business.
In addition to this pressure, there may be another subtle narrative going on, which could have other unintended and damaging consequences.
By focusing only on “childcare”, the government sends a message that undermines early childhood education and care workers. Referring only to reductions in childcare ratios has the net result of devaluing and obscuring the importance of early education, making those who “care for children” little more than babies. -sitters.
Successive governments have encouraged the workforce to acquire higher qualifications to ensure they provide a quality supply. Ofsted inspections have become increasingly rigorous to ensure that there are no missed learning opportunities for our youngest children. Yet the average earnings of early years practitioners remain low, with the average salary being £19,000 a year.
This persistence in separating “care” of “education” when official bodies refer to the sector, also suggests a view that education is purely about cognitive function. This line of thinking tends to promote more formalized learning, which ultimately suggests that the real role of early education is to prepare children for school.
Childcare, on the other hand, tends to focus more on the practical aspects of caring for young children, changing diapers for example. It often incorporates the social and emotional aspects of child development (which is often referred to as “the fluffy stuff”). Those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector know that early childhood education encompasses much more than this narrow vision.
Early educators appreciate the importance of play and exploration as a primary method of children’s learning. They also understand that their role is to help children develop lifelong learning skills, attitudes and attributes.
Informal learning for young children provides important and vital foundations for life. The early years are a time when positive bathroom habits are formed and children have the opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with food. Children begin to learn skills that will help them establish warm and appropriate relationships with peers and others outside their family unit. Additionally, pre-reading and writing skills are developed, while attitudes towards numbers, problem solving, books and curiosity about the world are ignited. This is preschool education at its best, digging and building strong foundations for children’s lives.
According to well-established knowledge about attachment, we know that children tend to thrive when they have positive relationships and feel secure. Parents also need to have confidence in the quality of care their child receives.
There are significant moves in the industry to develop ways of working that openly and honestly incorporate ideas about bringing professional love into practice. Although attachment theory has its limitations, the continued presence of the key person system in ECEC settings speaks to the enduring belief that children need a secure foundation to grow and learn. However, if government plans to reduce the ratios were to be introduced, this would inevitably reduce the opportunities for positive interactions and dilute the value of the relationship with the key person.
We know that words matter and how things are described matters because words portray shades of meaning. So we need the government to reframe its approach.
There is growing evidence that the social-emotional aspects of learning, which are traditionally linked to childcare, are important for the long-term success of children. Describing the sector as early childhood education and care (rather than other options which tend to omit care) incorporates the important philosophy that care cannot and should not be separated from education AND that child development is tied to lifelong learning skills, attitudes and attributes rather than a rather narrow “school readiness” curriculum.
Changing the way the sector is described, reconsidering changes to existing ratios and considering long-term investments in the sector would signal a change in attitude and respect the work of early educators. These are the people who could hold the key to improving outcomes for young children from disadvantaged backgrounds.