Skip to main content

The future of 'good quality' childcare in England

Dr Caroline A Jones, Centre for Lifelong Learning

Published February 2014

English local authorities now receive an additional £755 million of government funding for childcare, with the aim being to provide 15 hours a week of free childcare to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds in England. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said “I want to give children the best possible start in life to get them ready to learn, progress, and aim high”1 but will the funding help this happen and is the childcare profession in a place to support this goal? In January 2014, the Sutton Trust urged ministers to delay the scheme until “good quality provision” can be guaranteed. Dr Caroline A Jones, Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Warwick, offers her thoughts on the call for a delay.

Dump truck

The suggestion to delay the expansion of free nursery places for two-year-olds until "good quality provision" can be guaranteed, presents an apparently simple solution to what is a complex problem. However, it assumes a consensus on the meaning of 'good' in relation to ‘quality’ early years provision and the existence of a robust system to monitor and support quality. It also fails to acknowledge that the health, safety, education and well-being of two-year-olds, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are set within a broader social, cultural and political context, inherently multidisciplinary in nature and not the sole remit of funded nursery education providers. The assumption that a relevant Level 3 childcare qualification will "ensure standards are good" fails to question what should be considered as 'relevant' in terms of the content and delivery of training courses or to address the continued lack of any national pay, qualification and career structure for practitioners working with children under statutory school age.

The situation is compounded by constant external pressure on those working in the early years sector to ensure children meet centrally prescribed, ever changing and pre-determined outcomes alongside a regulatory focus on using statistical summative ‘data’ to measure young children’s progress, rather than formative holistic observations. Additionally, the terms ‘childcare’ and ‘education’ remain ill-defined and continued cuts in local authorities hamper efforts to improve services leaving a patchwork of diverse early years provision in England. There is a continued lack of clarity about the fundamental purpose of early years education provision in English society. Any delay to the expansion of places is pointless unless it allows for a radical overhaul of early childhood care and education policy in order to translate rhetoric into reality.

Early years policy has an important impact not only in shaping the quantity and patterns of provision but also in shaping values and beliefs about what young children are like, what they should learn and the type of care and education they receive. What is considered appropriate for young children depends, in part, on the nature of early childhood development in a particular society. Diverse views exist on the purpose of the expansion of free nursery provision for two-year-olds. For policymakers it may, primarily, be a vehicle for reducing poverty or improving outcomes. Elizabeth Truss MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, recently suggested that the expansion scheme would enable more parents to work. For working parents, the key purpose of the provision could be to meet their own needs for a safe day-care facility to leave their child while they go to work, as well as to meet the early childhood development needs of their boy or girl. Alternatively, some parents may see that, as their children grow and develop, they need an opportunity to learn through play with others and develop language and social skills. Professionals may consider the learning and developmental needs of children and view the early years as a phase in its own right, for learning through play, having fun, being happy and not merely as a vehicle to prepare children for reaching centrally prescribed pre-determined outcomes or getting ready for school or ‘school readiness’. Perhaps the focus should be on ensuring primary schools are ready for children, or ‘child ready’ rather than expecting nurseries and childminders to ensure children are ‘school ready’ at progressively earlier ages.

Policy has been instrumental in shaping the content of the early years’ curricula as well as influencing principles and approaches to pedagogy. It also depends on ideas about children as learners, and how or what they should learn in the early years. Policymakers, early years practitioners and parents will all have different ideas about how children learn and how to best meet their needs. Highly prescriptive learning outcomes, and a formal drive towards progress in learning for example, may lead to limited focus on ‘nursery education’ and a neglect of the child’s psychological health and wellbeing. An emphasis on typical progress and achievement in ‘literacy’ or ‘mathematics’ may work in conflict with a practitioner’s belief that each child is unique and progresses at different rates. Any expansion needs to consider the fundamental values and beliefs underpinning practice.

Nursery playAs stated in the report, the expansion is concerned with narrowing the achievement gap between rich and poor. However, the provision of free part-time nursery places for eligible two-year olds, does not enter a social, cultural, economic or historical vacuum. It is only one part of the solution to tackling disadvantage and needs to be situated in the wider policy context. Professor Cathy Nutbrown, University of Sheffield, for example, recently suggested that the funding for the free entitlement in disadvantaged areas would be better spent in supporting families and children in their homes, supporting practitioners to work with families and children as individuals. Ensuring children reach their own unique potential requires integrated working across education, health and social care rather than a simple expansion of free places.

The inference that current levels of quality in nurseries and amongst childminders may not be adequate to deliver the planned expansion of places, rests on the simplistic view that gaining a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgment in an Ofsted inspection is an adequate measure of quality. It also suggests that ‘quality’ itself is a clearly understood and agreed concept. The regulation and inspection system itself is fundamentally flawed with changing statutory requirements, terminology and level descriptors; complex evaluation schedules and inspection criteria which many childminders and nurseries, hitherto judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ will no longer be able to achieve.

The situation is exacerbated by local authority funding cuts, leading to severely reduced continued professional development, advice and support for providers, in between inspections, which may be as many as four to six years apart. Rather than embracing quality diverse patterns of provision and enhancing choice for parents, inclusive of voluntary, independent and private settings, the trial of provision for two-year-olds on school sites, only serves to exclude and reduce the number of places available overall. The suggested delay to the expansion of funded places and restriction of access to provision that has not been judged as ‘good’, taken to its logical conclusion further implies that primary and secondary schools judged to require improvement should also have their funding withdrawn.

It is now widely accepted that the key determinant of good quality is the calibre of the children’s workforce. Supporting young children’s learning and development, whilst safeguarding their physical and emotional well-being, demands the dismantling of the historical legacy of the low paid ‘mum’s army’. It requires the creation of a workforce of reflective practitioners, with strong pedagogical knowledge and understanding combined with personal attributes and passion. The focus on early years teachers (EYTs) neglects the vast majority of Level 3 practitioners, who could progress to Level 4 or 5. Programmes such as the sector-endorsed foundation degrees, intentionally designed to combine academic rigour and professional practice at Level 4 and 5 with articulated progression to Level 6 have been undermined by the sole emphasis on Level 3 and EYTs. The vision of a ‘world class workforce’ cannot be realised without a clear pay and career structure supported by a training ladder from entrants at Level 1 to leaders at Level 6 and beyond. The suggested requirement for a Level 3 qualification as a minimum, assumes the availability of trainers, assessors, mentors and quality work experience placements for trainees. The research evidence and recommendations in the recent Nutbrown review of qualifications have been largely ignored. Without a clear infrastructure, strategy and resources for training and development, merely funding an expansion of places is unlikely to narrow the gap between outcomes of rich and poor children. Simply, investing money into this expansion, delayed or otherwise, to score political points, will achieve nothing. Policymakers need to turn their attention to fundamental issues facing children and families the wider context rather than simply continuing to paper over the cracks.


1 Councils will receive £755 million to provide 15 hours a week of free childcare for the most disadvantaged 2-year-olds from September 2014, 

Dr Caroline JonesDr Caroline Jones started her career as a teacher in mainstream primary and special education, working across the Midlands area for 15 years. Caroline first joined the University of Warwick in 1994 as a part-time associate tutor on the Warwick undergraduate teacher-training programme (BA QTS). She taught on a variety of programmes and assumed responsibility for the Early Years Foundation Degree when it was introduced in 2001. She is a founder member of the National SEFDEY Network and Chair of the Midlands Region.

Her key research interests are leadership and professional development in early childhood education, and special educational needs. She has published a number of articles and chapters in edited books. Caroline’s most well known publications are Supporting Inclusion in the Early Years (2004) and Leadership and Management in the Early Years: Principles to Practice (2008). Caroline is actively involved in national children’s workforce policy initiatives. She is committed to collaborative working with local authorities and developing partnerships with local schools and early years settings.

Image: Big dump truck by Rachel (via Flickr)
Preschool Colors by Barnaby Wasson (via Flickr)