A few weeks ago Wave Trust in partnership with the DfE published its report Conception to Age 2 – The Age of Opportunity. I was part of the Special Interest Group that helped shape the report, along with an eclectic group of colleagues representing a variety of areas affecting babies – such as mental health, training, health visiting and psychology. I learned much from this group, chaired by the erudite and softly spoken George Hosking, CEO of Wave Trust. The full report is 135 pages long and a text book in its own right, but the shortened version designed for local busy commissioners is a useful summary with reference to all the relevant links.
Childcare is flavour of the week and quickly becoming a political football. I wish we had an equivalent Robin Van Persie to either land the childcare ball in the net, or kick it so far into the distance that we have to begin a debate that gets us to really consider what we want from childcare.
At the moment the media and the sector are making a fuss as to why it’s taking so long for the Government to respond to the Childcare Commission. I have no idea why people are investing so much energy into this anticipated announcement. It’s not going to solve the fundamental question as to why childcare is so expensive.
The Commission was set up by Sarah Teather MP when she was Minister of State in the Department of Education. Her approach was quite different to that of our new Minister Elizabeth Truss, unsurprisingly given that she is a Conservative and Ms Teather a Lib Dem. I might also remind everyone that when the Childcare Commission was launched just before the summer there was great annoyance from the sector about the timing, the questions and the purpose. The issue will never be resolved until we have a big conversation with ourselves about what we want for our children. At the moment two parallel drivers dictate childcare policy framed within rather confused thinking about how it can help reduce child poverty. The first policy strand focuses on enabling women to work, and the second to support social mobility in an attempt to help break inequality.
This week the challenges of both policy approaches reflected my week. First of all I attended the Child Poverty Alliance and was roused by My Fair London campaign’s reminder of the invidious consequences of inequality. Quoting statistics to make your head roll, I was reminded that London has the largest gap between rich and poor of any city in the developed world, with two thirds of all wealth in London held by just 10% of Londoners. I was reminded that the consequences of this inequality is bad for us all on so many levels, not least creating a lack of trust between the economic classes, poor child wellbeing (remember the UK came last in UNICEF’s report), poor health, increased cases of mental ill-health and general all around human misery.
Statistics show that in countries with the lowest levels of inequality, trust levels are five times higher and involvement in the community much greater than in countries where inequality levels are highest. What’s more, where inequality levels are high, children of families on the lowest incomes are already a year behind in their development by the age of five when compared with those who are better off (a fact that made me put down my current book Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens to re-read The Spirit Level; to be honest all of a similar theme).
Given that early education is considered a key factor in addressing this inequality - because it gets people to a place where they are more likely to succeed, and ultimately people with more education earn more, pay more taxes, are more productive, vote and are generally happier - a then access to childcare and education for young children as a driver of social mobility makes sense.
Midweek, I went to hear the Resolution Foundation research about improving childcare to be an even more effective policy driver for getting people, especially women, into work. They told us their findings that showed that two parent households of low to middle incomes (£17,000 to £41,000) are little better off than those on poor incomes. In fact they confirmed what we already know, that instead of taking working parents out of poverty, childcare costs were driving working parents into debt and poverty (an already all too familiar picture at LEYF). At this point, it is worth recalling the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who showed the link between inequality and the financial crises. He pointed out, it is no accident that both major modern crises - the first beginning in 1929, the second in 2008 -coincided with historic levels of inequality.
While there was much ooing and aahing from the Resolution Foundation audience of media, policy makers and charities, the question remained what to do. A key solution from was to offer parents an extra 10 hours a week at £1/hour for children aged 2, 3 and 4. I was slightly dismayed by this idea, given that Governments past and present have so far steadfastly refused to pay even the going rate for childcare, meaning providers like ourselves already subsidise the cost of childcare to families by up to £500 per child per annum. How then would we get any Government to pay for an additional properly costed contribution of a further £3billion? This and finding out what happens to the current £7billion is what the Childcare Commission should be addressing? Not tinkering with deregulation, alienating the sector and suggesting some regressive tax breaks.
In essence, the fundamental issue is exactly what David Cameron has already said himself:
More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.
David Cameron, Hugo Young memorial lecture, November 2009.
The Government therefore needs to weave the two strands of its policies together more coherently. Employment and social mobility should be one, so all families are supported out of poverty, not into it; and early education is delivered in a way that supports the longer term aim of creating a more equal society with all its attendant benefits.
I am a nervous passenger generally, but my anxiety rises to a whole new level when we go on the motorway.
My coping mechanism is to work on my computer to avoid spending the whole journey gripped in a panic that we are about to crash into the lorry ahead. The upside is that I get time to trawl through my documents and keep calm. Meanwhile, the driver (usually my husband) is able to concentrate on the road, rather than having to continually threaten to throw me out. The downside is that I come across speeches, articles and blog entries which all smack of Déjà Vu.
This week was a case in point, as I found myself preparing a speech on leadership in the sector and a presentation for some funds to help us grow the business. As I began the process by finding similar speeches for inspiration, I was shocked to discover so many of the issues facing us today were exactly the same as far back as 2007. I know they say that change takes time, but this seems excessively slow.
So I thought it might serve as a fun game, as we head into the Jubilee-free weekend, to remind ourselves of the state of play and key issues back then, to see how much if anything has changed:
Universal child care was inadequately funded
It was felt that children should not go to school aged four (a sentiment supported by the Children and Young People Select Committee and National Primary Headteachers Association)
Ofsted was looking at its approach to inspection
- I was arguing that Children’s Centres should be a hub for intergenerational work, with young and old learning together and developing relationships that could help achieve community cohesion
- We were awaiting a Government re-shuffle
- A Two Year Old Pilot was in discussion
- Unhappy economic times were beginning, and talk of solutions and sustainability were beginning to quietly emerge
- We had just taken our first group of apprentices called NEETs
- Action for Children and New Economics Foundation produced a fascinating report called Backing the Future, setting out a plan to save the UK taxpayer £486 billion over 20 years and dramatically improve social wellbeing
- According to economic analyst Rob Grunewald, (video here), if Government invested substantially in parenting and enriched daycare, they could expect a rate of return (in monetary terms) of between 3:1-7:1, and 17:1 by the time the child reaches 21years. He explained that social benefits were also significant, with a reduction in crime and prison, better educational attainment, healthier adults and reduced levels of obesity and a reduction in welfare dependency
- The Cambridge Primary Review was challenging the notion of school readiness in their final report, reminding us of what Froebel said 250 years before – namely that Early Years was not a time to merely prepare for school, but a distinct phase to be celebrated and enjoyed in its own right
- Remaining stubbornly high, child poverty was on the rise despite all attempts to reduce it – including provision of flexible work opportunities, training, childcare, improved incentives and investment in child benefit
- Limited funds were available to provide a quality workforce, including employing many more graduates
- Transitions to school were an issue
Peter Drucker said that management has no choice but to anticipate the future. Well then, we better start looking at the past, because the blueprint is already there. And as a leader, it’s probably wise to get organisations fit to manage the continual challenges that are not easily solved and are more entrenched than we could possibly imagine. Learning from experience is not enough.
Therefore, I’d suggest that one solution may be to create a learning organisation that can flex and re-shape, according to both the fast and slow pace of change. Consider the following ten steps, and maybe in this instance a bit of repeat, recall and déjà vu will be a good thing:
- Learning is incorporated into everything people do
- Learning for learning’s sake is encouraged and celebrated
- Teamwork, creativity, empowerment and quality are fully supported
- Staff are trusted and encouraged to choose and take decisions
- People with different job titles learn together
- Coaching relationships are promoted to enhance learning
- Learning is an integral part of meetings, work groups and work processes
- Everyone in the organisation has equal access to learning
- Mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities
- Cross-training is encouraged and staff that learn a broad range of skills rewarded
- Continuous learning is considered a shared core value of the organisation
Do you agree with the above? Let me know what you think in the space below.
Mr Mayor, please take an interest in the childcare sector and build a London fit for the next generation
When I started working with children many many years ago, I never envisaged talking about children and the economy in the same breath. These days, I never give it a second thought.
As part of their broader London childcare project, the Daycare Trust provides an annual review of the capital’s providers; and while no one review can ever be perfect, it does capture a fair snapshot of the sector’s current state of play.
Of course, there’s no doubting London is an expensive place to live, work and do business – with its own peculiar issues that are not always easy to generalize. Our great capital is made up of a series of villages woven together by the larger global village, and the challenge is making these two dynamics work in a way that allows for successful local economies and an overall successful city.
The survey represents 803 provider settings in London, providing a minimum of 15,275 full-time equivalent places across the private, voluntary and independent sectors (with the private sector providing the most places). So what did the sector say? Well unsurprisingly, the biggest worry is staying in business.
- 52% said they were fearful that parents cannot afford the fees
- 47% said they were hit by local authority cuts
- 33% are still worried about the level of free entitlement funding for 3 & 4 year-olds
- 31% are concerned about staff recruitment, pay and retention
- 29% are worried about falling occupancy rates
In all, the sector is worried. But really, it’s the politicians that should be more worried. The economy first of all needs people to work, so they can earn a living and then spend it, helping to flow money through the economy and create new wealth. Having good, affordable childcare is a critical element in helping to make this happen. Women have been hit particularly hard in this recession, so we need to do all we can to ensure they can work (especially as so many families depend on their vital contribution; the days of pin money are long gone and in many cases women are now the main breadwinners).
And why should we prevent women – who have studied and trained, and then built up a career – from working and making such a valuable contribution? We know the negative effects poverty has on children, families and society. Back in March, we complained that the Budget had done nothing to help parents with the spiralling cost of childcare, that George Osborne had missed a real opportunity to return the childcare element to its previous level and so help parents remain in sustainable employment.
So the sector has now asked the Mayor to step in, and step up to this economic challenge. We want to see his true colours; and if he can show his central Government colleagues a thing or two about how to lead. We know he can stick his neck out when things matter to him: he is keen on an estuary airport; he got very excited by Anish Kapoor’s embattled Orbit, the 120 metre public art sculpture at the Olympic Village; and he went head to head with Mr. Cameron on the Euro.
So Mr. Boris Mayor, please shake those famous tousled locks of yours and start with the following:
- Lobby the Government to bring maximum childcare tax credits for low income families back to 80% [HMRC Child and Working Tax Credit Statistics April 2011]
- Promote family friendly practice and childcare vouchers amongst all London employers
- Include the Early Years in your current education inquiry
In his own words:
The strength of a city lies in its people – from the famous, the infamous to the heroically obscure. From an earlier Mayor of London, Dick Whittington to the tireless volunteers working to turn around London’s next generation. All whose endeavours have built the place we call home, I salute.
Now do something that will help build a London fit for the next generation. Take an interest in childcare.
Two ever-popular and increasingly connected topics of debate, child poverty and social mobility have been high on my own agenda this week. Starting on Monday with a lunchtime debate hosted by Policy Exchange, entitled Towards a Better Child Poverty Target. Here an eminent panel of five, including Frank Field MP argued that the targets set to reduce child poverty were unhelpful. Kicking off the debate, Frank provoked the audience with real life examples of child poverty, and a heartfelt plea in support of all those children who are subject to the casual cruelty of ignorant adults. He concluded by asking Mr Cameron to read his report. (Leaving me to wonder how he knew the Prime Minister had not already done so.)
Next up was a representative of the End Child Poverty Campaign, arguing that we should have targets, not only since poverty damages children’s life chances, but since lower income equates with poor educational attainment which in turn leads to poverty. The Director of the Policy Exchange then suggested the measurement of 60% of the median income was somewhat arbitrary and needed to include relative poverty. He challenged how measurements can be deceiving, and statistically getting someone out of poverty may still leave them poor. He challenged the audience by saying that we did not really understand what caused poverty. For example we always assume that unemployment leads to poverty, whilst research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies was unable to link higher employment with a reduction in poverty. Much was made about poverty of the ‘in work’ population (something we often see at LEYF), itself mitigated to some degree by Child Tax Credits; although now a situation clearly challenged by the Chancellor’s budget decision to reduce access to tax credits.
The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson told us that poverty was not sexy and it certainly did not sell newspapers. Apparently, the public simply don’t get the notion of poverty. They don’t see people starving and so are unable to understand the issue; it is in effect a hidden problem. And it seemed no-one had a solution that might change this.
Finally, the debate began to focus on Early Years and the importance of early intervention. Reference was made to the negative impact of maternal deprivation, along with persistent and severe poverty on children’s development and their resulting low attainment, which in turn leads to lower levels of lifetime success.
The same subject was also raised on Tuesday by the APPG on social mobility, whose report looks at the causes of social mobility and what that means for policy makers. Called 7 Key Truths about Social Mobility, this must-read report tells us that in fact we don’t yet fully understand social mobility. It points out that to have true social mobility, some people have to go up and others go down, and goes on to say that social mobility is stuck in the UK; apparently those of us in my age bracket (guess) have seen greater social mobility than our children. It may be that education is the factor differentiating us from our parents, and so is the most effective lever. Nowadays it seems less effective, as so many young people already have a more equitable start. Either way, the seven truths they found were:
- The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between the ages of 0 and 3, and primarily in the home
- You can break the cycle through education
- The most important controllable factor is the quality of your teaching
- It’s also about what happens after the school bell rings
- University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key
- Later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support
- Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain
Unsurprisingly, none of this is new to me (or I’m sure most of the readers of this blog). In fact, it’s this very understanding that drove me into the arms of cultural capital research which now permeates much of what we do at LEYF, from both an economic and social perspective. It’s summed up in this equally relevant interim report on Sure Start delivery in 2011/12, produced by the APPG for SureStart. It states that
All those involved in providing early education and childcare services should encourage a broad social mix of children to attend high quality childcare services. They should address any barriers that may hinder participation by vulnerable children, such as geographical access, the cost of transport or a sense of discrimination and stigma.
It immediately brings to mind a recent example of cultural capital at work in our Holcroft Community Nursery. In this case, two children were on a holiday placement having recently left for school. Chatting away happily – and blissfully ignoring the adults seated nearby who only tuned in ‘mid flow’ – the conversation went something like this…
Child #1: “Key Managers?? Yes, Sherrine is my Key Manager.”
Child #2: “What does Key Manager mean?”
Child #1: “It’s your friend to tell you what to do, make sure you’re OK. Like the leader they are always the oldest.”
Child #2: “Oh, OK.”
I could draw a number of conclusions from this, but the most powerful for me was the sense of connection and confidence those children had about how things work. Cultural capital is the means of firstly helping children gain knowledge and then continue to develop and create it by understanding the system, before sharing this knowledge and making new connections. This is what helps children get on, and it’s when children struggle to understand the system that they are truly disadvantaged.
Where has the month gone? I am scared by the speed by which our lives pass; it seems we have so little time to make any real, lasting difference. As a result, I have spent most of January talking to people and confirming our plans to really grow the organisation. The Government suggests that we have two alcohol free days a week free. No chance this month. Neither did I get a chance to attend any of the Samba classes that have been happening across LEYF in preparation for our annual New Year Party this evening, when over 200 of our staff are due to party on late into the night (although I will be gone by 10 ish!).
Outside of LEYF, the world remains a rather unsettled place. The economy is not recovering, the Eurozone is a disaster, child poverty continues to grow as does unemployment among the young. There is an edgy feel about. The politicians talk about creative capitalism or moral capitalism. Young people apparently consider the whole thing ‘Peak’. So we have a choice: we sit tight and ride the storm, keep calm and do nothing, whinge, run for the hills or see things like the Chinese do, that every crisis is just as much an opportunity. Interestingly, we have just entered the year of the Dragon: a time for wisdom, strength, benevolence and good fortune.
Back at LEYF, we have decided we can expand our pioneering approach across London. It’s a simple enough model: community nurseries with a range of fees, alongside apprenticeships all wrapped within a multi-generational approach. This ambition is only possible because I trust that LEYF staff will come with me. We may lose a few people along the way, but that may be right for both them and us; working for a small organisation is not quite the same as a big group or a network of internal franchisees.
Why do it? Why risk upsetting the apple cart? Because we have a duty to share what we do well for small children. Child poverty continues to rise to the detriment of the child, the family and society as a whole. Many people are lost and lonely, so why should we not roll out our way of doing things to benefit many more people? The bankers and many other private businesses are growing despite often appalling records; they appear to show neither remorse nor a duty of care to their customers. So if we can do something that brings a social good, it is only right that we make the effort to do more of what we already do well.
The risks are immense. Can we keep the quality? Will staff remain motivated? Can we create the right support structure? Will parents abandon us? The signs are that none of this will happen anymore than it would happen in a smaller organisation. The success is having sharp, intelligent, knowledgeable, skilled and entrepreneurial leaders across the organisation, individuals who also come with a natural and clear sense of social duty, coupled with the ability to connect with the community.
It’s probably a big ask, but when 650,000 children across London live in poverty, it’s probably the right question.
As Goethe says:
Seize this very minute; what you can do, or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
This weekend, I spent some time helping my sister (also in Early Years!) go through her old teaching resources in readiness to move them into a new space. Amongst the many gems we unearthed was a copy of Nursery World from May 2002.
Leafing through this random issue, I was reminded of Bill Murray in that classic film, Groundhog Day, as I discovered quite how shockingly familiar the stories in there really were: Liz Robert’s editorial was all about the delays to getting CRB checks done and the implication for nursery businesses; there was a report called Bitter Sweet which was raising concern about obesity in children; Coram had just been funded to examine quality in childcare from a European perspective, Care work: Current Understandings and Future Directions; the Daycare Trust was sharing the key messages from its report Raising Expectations – Delivering Childcare for All , which identified low morale among childcare staff because of low pay and their inability to increase their salaries due to difficult access to good quality qualifications. There was also a quote from Stephen Burke, then director of the Daycare Trust on the national childcare strategy which was as pertinent today as in 2002.
We need a rejuvenated national childcare strategy. Without a radical rethink and substantial investment the Government won’t be able to fulfil its ambitions not just to deliver childcare for all but to end child poverty. The pace pf change is too slow and in some cases is invisible to parents”.
Stephen Burke, Nursery World, 2002 (23rd May, p5)
This week Nursery World reported on the Doing Better for Families report, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which compared family well-being in 30 countries. The report noted that child poverty in the UK fell from 17.4% to 10.5% between 1995 and 2005, more than in any other country. However, the report also confirmed that progress on reducing child poverty had stalled and was at risk of rising.
So is there an easy solution to avoiding opening our copies of Nursery World in May 2020, only to discover that in ten years not much has changed once again? We are not short of reports and research about what seems to be needed; still we seem unable, paralysed even, to implement what needs to happen if we are to see changes made that will not only last a long time, but also and more significantly make a real difference to children, families, their communities and our society as a whole.
Let’s focus on child poverty for a moment: why can’t we write on one side of an A4 page what Early Years policy decisions and services caused the drop in child poverty? Were Early Years policies irrelevant, with the drop in child poverty simply down to other more critical factors such as an economic shift and different fiscal policies? Do we not have the wherewithal to work some of this out and at least try and summarise what is needed to reduce child poverty once and for all? If not, we will only continue to shoot in the dark; wasting money, failing children and spending our time kidding ourselves that everything is fine and that the emperor really is wearing a suit of gold. As a civilised country, we cannot allow child poverty to continue to be such a disgraceful blot on our landscape; beautiful in so many other ways.
Last week, I looked at the organisation Action for Happiness, which warned us that consumerism and individualisation will not make us happy. Neither will keeping high levels of child poverty. The link between wellbeing and inequality was also highlighted in a most interesting book called The State of Happiness by the Young Foundation (N, Bacon, M. Brophy, N, Mguni, G. Mulgan and A. Shandro, 2010). In the last chapter, they ask whether public policy can shape people’s wellbeing and resilience, with the following conclusion:
There is as yet no straightforward menu of policies to improve wellbeing. Advances in behavioural economies and psychology have improved understanding of this territory. But specific policy knowledge is limited. There are many promising ideas and approaches but little certainty that a particular set of actions will deliver particular results.”
The State of Happiness, 2010 (p86)
This could be the same issue facing child poverty: maybe we don’t know enough to solve the problem immediately. So, what options do we have? Remain complacent and accepting or respond to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, who told this week’s Nursery World that…
…rather than having a top down approach to delivering support for children in the Early Years , we need to work in partnership , not with local government, but with those in the voluntary and charitable sector.”
Michael Gove, Nursery World, 2011 (5th May, pg 4)
It’s a fair point and one we need to act upon. The sector must come together and agree what we need to do if we are to play a real part in helping reduce child poverty. There are enough reports out there we can refer to – including the Department for Education’s own, launched in April by Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP – along with their recent investment in a strategic partner, charged with bringing the sector together to solve problems and celebrate successes.
From my side, I will be speaking at a national policy conference this Wednesday, so welcome any comments or questions you’d like me to raise on the day. To get you thinking, just ask yourself: do you really want to be reading Nursery World in 2020 about the challenges we still face in getting to grips once and for all with child poverty?