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Nursery education – a hundred years of expansion and cuts - Dr Angela Davis

Dr Angela Davis of the University of Warwick History department comments in response to the Government plea to nurseries over free childcare,

"The current conflict between the government’s desire to expand free nursery education for two- to four-year-olds and their reluctance to provide the funding to do so is in fact nothing new. For over a hundred years nursery education has suffered from the reluctance of governments of all political persuasions to invest in nursery education meaning generations of British children have not experienced the same opportunities to attend a nursery school as many of their western European contemporaries. There have been numerous moments when nursery education was expanded or looked set to expand before a retrenchment occurred due to changes in the country’s economic fortune.

For example in the 1929 election Labour included the wide provision of nursery schools in its policy outline and after it was returned, the new government sent out a circular to local authorities giving them strong encouragement to open nursery schools. Nine new nursery schools were opened in 1930, with plans for many more. The promised expansion was again curtailed by the demands of economy, though, resulting from the financial crisis of the following year.

During the last years of the Second World War plans were again made for large-scale nursery provision. However, these proposals were not translated into post-war policy. Nursery education was left in an ambiguous position under the 1944 Education Act: because it was not mandatory, some local education authorities believed they could avoid providing nursery education.

In 1972, hopes for universal nursery provision were again raised when Margaret Thatcher, as Minister of Education, produced a white paper recommending the wholesale increase of nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents wished them to have them. It was expected that by 1980 there would be nursery school places for 50 per cent of three-year-olds and 90 per cent of four-year-olds. Optimism quickly faded, though, as another economic crisis arose. After Labour was returned in the 1974 election, Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibility for local government, famously told local authorities on the 9 May 1975 that ‘the party is over’. Central government funding available for the nursery education building programme for 1975–76 was almost half that of the previous year.

The late 1990s and early 2000s was another moment of promise. In 1998 the New Labour government launched the first National Childcare Strategy, which aimed to deliver quality, affordable and accessible childcare in every neighbourhood. From 1998 all four-year-olds in England were entitled to a free place in a maintained school reception class from the September following their fourth birthday. In 2004 this was extended to all three-year-olds. Early-years services formed an important part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s family policy with the coalition agreement supporting the provision of free nursery care and the launch of a free nursery scheme for disadvantaged two-year-olds. However, this scheme was to be financed at the expense of Sure Start with plans to close more than 125 Sure Start children’s centres

Current Conservative government policy seems to be characterised by the desire to increase the number of children attending nursery education, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but a reluctance to fund it. Their call to nursery providers for ideas about how to increase the number of funded hours for three-year-olds from fifteen to thirty, in line with their manifesto promise, seems emblematic of their quandary."

Alex Buxton
Communications Manager
Tel: 02476 150423
Mob: 07876 218166
a.buxton.1@warwick.ac.uk