Conference talk: more courage and less cliché for two-year-old childcare please

The Conference season is upon us, and so the launch of ideas for manifestos rain down upon our ears. Clichés and soundbites abound as the Party Leaders try and outdo each other with their cleverness. The Press is having a field day comparing dull and duller (or as I would suggest Dumb and Dumber). The risk to the credibility of any leader is that he will be hoisted by his own petard of stupid announcements, impossible promises and incoherent policy.  This time, it seems the Early Years is first in the firing line.

The Lib Dems started the ball rolling by announcing £100m capital to spend on building more nurseries for two year olds. Do we really need more nurseries, or shall we just start by filling the ones that are empty from other bad policy decisions? Actually, what we really need is revenue to pay for the places. It was therefore somewhat of an irony when two days later the Government, including the Lib Dems, revealed that £158 million is to be taken from the Early Intervention Grant to fund about half the cost of the Two Year Old programme.

Here is another irony, when the last Government was in power, Local Authorities complained that their ability to spend their funds was far too stymied by ring-fencing.  The new Government came in and responded to the complaints by removing the ring fence and told them that they were all localists now.  Now with this new announcement, a hybrid has emerged with localism and ring-fencing all in the same shrinking pot, with local authorities instructed to spend a % of their Early Intervention Grant to pay for the cost of the Two Year olds. Graham Allen, who wrote two reports on the importance of Early Intervention, has written to the Prime Minister about the impact of reallocating the funds. He is arguing that there has already been a 23 percent reduction in the EIG 2010/2012. Top slicing it further (for example the proposed 17 percent cut in 2013/4) to cover the two year olds will make taking Early Intervention to scale – with evidence based programmes in every locality – much harder if not impossible.

I found all this out on my way to Coventry, where I had been asked to talk about two year olds.  I am not sure of the origin of the saying ‘sent to Coventry’, but it certainly felt a little bit of a punishment reading about these announcements on a two hour journey with London Midland. Frankly, I think the Government could do with spending a little time on the train thinking through a coherent plan before doing anything rash.

During my presentation, I avoided the issue of funding. I focused instead on how we get on with making it happen irrespective of Party Politics. When we get bogged down in a spending discussion, we inevitably get stuck and then any creativity and pragmatism gets lost.

The sad thing is that the policy to offer two year old children from poor families free childcare, although laudable, is a missed opportunity.  Instead, it is more just another bit of tinkering. Firstly, it reaffirms the split between childcare and education (a disaster in itself as it means we affirm said segregation).  The former is seen as a private service to parents who want to work and the latter not only a right for all, but in fact a public good (except it is poorly funded and not universal). This policy was a great opportunity to weave the two into one coherent approach, and do what the much lauded Scandinavians already have: a universal entitlement that complements family life. It could have been the perfect opportunity to stop confusing education with schooling.

So even if we get the £100m to spend in areas of need; if it’s well planned and provides appropriate settings for tiny children, it still won’t be enough. The reality is that some two year olds may end up in schools or hastily cobbled together spaces. What we need to do is take control of this by insisting and ensuring that wherever children are placed, the environment reflects an educational philosophy that provides the best pedagogical experience. The sector needs to avoid being swept up in pre-election manifesto canvassing and show some fortitude and tenacity. We need to take a handle on how we give children really good quality education, no matter where they are.  This means understanding the care element and being able to have pedagogical conversations that explain what we do, why we do it and what it looks like. Leaders must understand what two year olds need to develop, enjoy and succeed.

Let’s not forget the key message from the Olympics, and how it inspired children not just to achieve their potential but to surpass their ambitions. The good leaders of this country might do well to remember this when they are planning their Conference speeches. We know times are hard, but they will be a lot harder if they do not show some moral courage right now.

It’s time our politicians remembered the wise council of Confucius – that great leaders have the courage to do what is right. If they could only heed this, perhaps they would do a better job for our beautiful two year-olds.