Dear Mr Clegg,
Thank you for listening to us about the potential changes to the ratios. I can honestly say we were genuinely delighted that you understood our perspective and agreed to drop the policy. What I hope you and your politician colleagues understand is that if the sector believed the policy would benefit children, the majority would support it and go out of our way to make it work. In this case however, except for those few happy to take the King’s Shilling (!), we as a group agreed and understood the negative impact it would have. The Early Years sector attracts a great many passionate and positive people who want to make a difference – not in a clichéd and trite way but in a pragmatic and constructive one. A good group of people to have on side, I would urge you to have more dialogue with them.
So Mr Clegg, given the Government’s overall commitment to strengthening families, promoting work and focusing support on improving the lives of the most vulnerable children, we need to consider the whole two year old programme in the round. The DfE has finally produced their report about the Two Year old trials that took place across the country. It raised some questions and I will add my two penn’orth for good measure. You will shortly be able to read more detailed thinking in our LEYF research paper, The Twoness of Twos.
Firstly, let’s think about capacity. We need you to help ensure there is effective childcare mapping, especially as life has been made easier for academies and schools to offer early learning places (by removing the requirement to register separately with Ofsted if they wish to provide places for children aged two years). The local authority annual sufficiency assessment is now also very watered down, not least since local authorities have made serious cuts and many have no-one to conduct such assessments. Finally, let’s not see a repeat of the SureStart debacle, where buildings were built next to sustainable nurseries which subsequently went out of business. Gaps now exist because tax-payer funded provision cannot be sustained in these economically challenging times.
So, your initial task here would be to help us develop a balance of good quality provision spread sensibly around the country. Make it easy for us to access the £100m of capital funding to support expansion of places; and please get more action through the Community Asset Transfer system.
Next, look at the childminder sector, as they were generally receptive to the two-year-old programme. You also need to examine current plans for childminding agencies; check carefully if this model will work and deliver additional flexible places for two year olds.
Secondly, Mr Clegg, we need you to bring your formidable understanding of the sector to help sort out the new Ofsted inspection regime. The current situation is not helping the cause of two year olds given the rather arbitrary approach to inspection. The Government is saying only good and outstanding settings are suitable for two year olds, only Ofsted is busily downgrading many settings – not on the basis of education and learning but by criticising action on processes which means a downgrade on the leadership and management criteria. The outcome of a lower judgement means that two year olds can no longer be accommodated. Our Minister is insisting that local authorities will not be able to override this outcome on the basis of their knowledge of the setting and quality, and so we have a dilemma – lots of two year olds and no places.
I am not suggesting we reduce the quality or the rigour of inspections (just look at what has happened in Ireland), but we need to bring balance to the process. For example, many downgrades come after the inspection: an inspection leaves suggesting one grade, then an unaccountable and non-transparent quality assurance downgrades the outcome. The sector has no real recourse to appeal.
Please Mr Clegg, broker a conversation with Ofsted for us.
In order to accommodate the sheer numbers of two years olds from poorer families, many of us have tried to balance getting staff in place, getting them trained and getting the two year olds into nursery. Needless to say it’s a challenge. We are all finding it difficult to recruit staff. Many practitioners will need to review and update their skills and knowledge – whether through pursuing formal qualifications or through regular continuing professional development in order to deliver early learning for the two-year-olds programme. Just as this is happening, the More Great Childcare report is demanding a change to qualifications; removing local authorities’ contribution to quality improvement and eradicating any financial support to upgrade training and qualifications quickly.
Please help us balance the need to accommodate the two year olds and recruit and support staff in quick succession. This is an investment; we can address the core issues of quality and qualifications over time.
As I said at the beginning, the sector is behind you. We are keen on social mobility. We recognise the broader consequences of not investing in early years. But weave this ambition more effectively into More Great Childcare. Right now one unravels the other. A stitch in time will save billions. Please help us to do this. Like you, we also want two year olds to do well in nursery and be able to succeed in the future.