Tag Archives: Elizabeth Truss

What happened when Santa got stuck up the Chimney?



When Santa got stuck up the chimney
He began to shout,
I’ll tell Mr Gove and he will explode
if you don’t let me out.
He’ll tell Ms Truss
And she will get cross
And will turn all the nurseries into schools.’
When Santa got stuck up the chimney
Aitchoo, aitchoo  aitchoo

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More Great Childcare? Don’t think so…

The delayed response to More Great Childcare (or ‘More Great Childcages’ as coined by Penny Tassoni) filled me with dread. I looked and saw it was 52 pages and I groaned. Should I bother to colour it in with my highlighter? Will Liz Truss be our Minister for much longer? Is it worth the effort given the fact that she may be promoted in October, leaving us to start all over again with a new Minister? (Maybe third time lucky!?)

However, I decided to dive in and plough through, and eventually by page 27 I could really start using that highlighter…

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Sing-along to Bob Marley as you prepare for International Children’s Day on 1st June

Thank you all who responded to my blog ‘Colleagues, it’s time we finally took control’ calling us to stand up together and Reclaim Early Years from the toxic grip of our politicians. I was overwhelmed by the response.

The Government plans to loosen the ratios of adults to children as well as various changes including reducing quality support measures – it convinced me that our sector needs to find its voice, take over the Early Years debate, and communicate our concerns to the public.

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Dear Colleagues, it’s time we finally took control.

Our Minister has done us a favour, although she may not have realised it. She has thrown down the gauntlet by challenging the sector, so now we need to take control of our own destiny. Her ill-informed and contradictory facts beg us to tell our story, so every individual – especially parents – is left with a clear understanding of what we as a sector want for the children in our care.

UPDATE: for more recent developments on this topic, please join our new group ‘Reclaim Early Years‘ on LinkedIn.

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A visit from our Minister

Elizabeth Truss at LEYF

This week LEYF hosted a visit for our Minister Elizabeth Truss MP.  We were pleased to welcome her and ensured she spent time in the Baby Room with 14 under 2s and 5 members of staff!  As expected, the children were all complete angels, behaving like well-briefed civil servants; chuckling, smiling and engaging the Minister and her small team with aplomb.  Of course, what I actually wanted was them all crying, pooing and falling over to help us bring the critical issue of staff to child ratios to the fore; allowing our Minister to see first-hand how it would feel to play the role of a French auxiliary staff member trained to step in when there was a shortage of staff.

The Minister and I called truce on the ratios issue during the visit. We didn’t talk about it much, as we will never agree that even a flexible change is a good thing.  As far as I’m concerned, any such flexibility runs the risk of a slow shift from the norm to the present proposals, which will in turn then become custom and practice. Not only will this see all the issues raised, such as a decline in quality and the creation of a two-tier system, but for those most hard-hearted about the issue, we will see our funding based on staff costs. Less staff means less funding, and soon we will have gone from £6 to £5.09 and the trend of a downward spiral will continue. I support Penny Webb’s efforts and hope you read and sign the e-petition.

Ratios aside, the Minister is keen to raise the profile of the sector and understands that we need help to get the public to understand the importance of what we do and therefore raise the calibre of those wanting to work in the sector. We agreed that we need to change hearts and minds about the enormity of the role of Early Years in the future of society. I suggested that she focus her energy on that and create a dramatic and wide-ranging marketing campaign to push the notion further.  The underlying issue of funding never quite goes away though, because it really is at the heart of the matter.

To my delight Elizabeth Truss was interested in Men in Childcare (MiC) and so I invited her to meet the men who are part of the London Men in Childcare Network. I also asked her to read the LEYF report.

Men in Childcare (MiC)

The inaugural MiC meeting itself was on Thursday 28 February, and a very happy and uplifting experience it was too (although rather odd to be one of four women in a room full of male practitioners).  It highlighted a number of issues; not least the role we have as women to ensure that all female practitioners are open and willing to fully welcome male colleagues, not just as token males but as serious contributors to the sector. I hope the Minister comes and speaks at a national conference LEYF is keen to support later in the year.

My final concern as regards the Minister was that we consider how we manage her demand that all future staff come with A to C in Maths and English.  This is not a fool-proof means of ensuring we get staff with a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy, so we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We have some way to go before we can recruit staff with the right attitude and experience, and to get staff with the proposed A to C qualifications as well may be a huge hurdle.  I am also worried about losing otherwise great apprentices that have the ability but not the suggested entry qualifications.  In this respect, the Minister was very impressed with our apprenticeship programme and its positive contribution to creating an engaged and high quality workforce in the Early Years sector; many LEYF apprentices have moved up the ranks and so help to maintain our fantastically low staff turnover.

The Minister’s suggestion on qualifications is very much a double edged sword and we in the sector need to help her find a solution that suits us all. Remember what happened in the past when Tony Blair announced the need for 100,000 new staff? In order to achieve that we watered down the NVQ to the point that in the end we had a qualification that was more trouble than it was worth.  With Nutbrown having considered all these issues and announced the need for a new full and relevant qualification, we need to see that happens.  Consultation on this very matter was launched this week by the Department of Education; Consultation on the criteria for Early Years Education qualifications (Level 3). I hope you all find time to respond.

My message to the Minister (apart from relinquishing the proposed changes to ratios) is to launch a national conversation about the importance of Early Years to the future of our society – in fact the very time she should copy the French. It would also help her ambition to raise both our and her profile. A possible win win all round, I would say.

Can President Obama supply the Haribo needed to bang out an Early Years investment proposition?

UK politicians and policy makers oscillate between venerating Europe and the US. We all now know of our Minister Elizabeth Truss‘ current fascination with early years education in France and Denmark, an attraction that perplexes many in both countries. From my recent trip to Paris, these individuals have confirmed that such a fascination is undeserved. However, right now the Minister’s eyes should travel further west and examine what is happening in the US.

The US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan has decided that access to Early Years education is key to levelling the playing field for students of all backgrounds, and is keen to invest in universal early education for 1.85 million 4-year-olds. As he told Bloomberg Radio:

[If we don’t do this], we’re playing catch-up from the start. The more we can increase access to early childhood education, make sure it’s high quality in reaching those children in communities who historically have been under served – that’s the best investment we can make.

He acknowledges the political challenge, namely that early childhood education is a long-term investment – longer than the terms of most political appointees and elected officials – and that the dividends will be reaped long after President Barack Obama has left the White House. Nonetheless, he has the far-sightedness to want to do things differently in order to do the best thing:

…not just for our children and our families, but ultimately to strengthen our country. The path to the middle class goes straight through America’s classrooms.

Like the UK Coalition Government, President Obama is building on some of the legacy of the previous incumbent George W. Bush, who in 2002 developed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), designed to elevate education as the “great civil rights issue of our time“, and also challenge “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Despite concerns about NCLB and its laser focus on test-based accountability with unrealistic and hard to manage targets, it is giving the President and members of Congress an opportunity to demonstrate a bipartisan effort around which they can move forward together. It all feels very familiar, does it not?

However, maybe we should demand the same level of foresight illustrated by Mr. Duncan from our own politicians, and develop a more cross party set of long term objectives for our children and our nation’s future with a mandate from the public.

Perhaps, we can ask President Obama to loan Mr. Duncan to the UK with a packet of Haribo in his pocket, which he could share with our politicians as he helped them agree a long-term properly thought out early year’s investment proposition.

Such an effort would certainly guarantee I donate Curly Wurlys for a job well done.

A Happy Valentine’s date in Paris with French nurseries!

Eiffel Tower

Valentine’s Day in Paris. Yep, there I was. Not arm in arm with my beloved, but trudging across the otherwise romantic capital of France visiting nurseries. Part of a group of nursery providers, we had arranged at our own cost to hear directly from the French on how they are successfully able to manage ratios of 1 to 6 babies and 1 to 10 toddlers.

Maybe they are as turbo-charged as we read about.  Remember we are still smarting from being told that French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano and French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, or French Children Don’t Talk Back by Catherine Crawford.  This is of course nonsense, as we have plenty of French children across all LEYF nurseries and they follow the same patterns of behaviour as any other child; and not all their mothers are a slim size 8.

However, as we crisscrossed a cold and wet Paris to visit nurseries, the real picture emerged: the French were charming and pleasant. Between us we visited a cadre of day care centres made up of social enterprise, public and private nurseries. LEYF already had a good relationship with Mouvement des entrepreneurs sociaux (the French Association for Social Enterprises), and the co-ordinator had arranged a most interesting timetable including meeting the equivalent Head of Early Years for Paris. Very much the Entente Cordiale.

The findings: the French do not like the ratios; it limits their opportunities to educate children under the age of 3 years. The nurseries were spotless and the principle of cleanliness next to godliness rules. Lots of plastic and safety surfaces, both indoors and outside. Strict restrictions operate around creative play: no sand indoors or outdoors; limited water play and limited usage of food in play; for example no spaghetti swamps, or vegetables in the role play area.  Some child carers were trying to bathe their babies without water.   This is all part of the system they have created and embedded to manage the higher ratios.  Despite having access to a large number of support staff, they admitted to struggling with ratios and were left open-mouthed when they found out how we currently operate.

Paris has its own approach and is busy examining best practice examples. Their current objective is introducing non-stereotyped play.  They admire the EYFS as setting out good principles of practice. Of course, we met some creative leaders as well as signing up the first European member of the London Network of Men in Childcare.

Fees are much more complex because of the tax and employer subsidies. Parents pay less but that is because the state pays the correct cost of a place.  None of your average £3.66 doled out to UK providers!  They were looking at rates of between 9 and 11 euros per hour.

Despite the low fees, however, French mothers are up in arms at the moment, as they are short 500,000 places to meet their needs.  La Loterie, ca suffit is the call. The French birth rate is one of the highest in Europe and 84% of mothers work. I met some campaigners who demonstrated their fury with Nadine Morano and her 2010 Act, which introduced flexible ratios as a way of putting 100,000 more childcare places into circulation at no cost to the state. The new Government placated parents with a National Consultation which announces its findings this week; an outcome I will be very interested to hear.

So, when you go and see Les Mis and hear the rousing song “Do you hear the people sing“, consider that many French mothers and childcare practitioners are not singing either.

Remember the lessons of Stafford Hospital and listen to Florence Nightingale: don’t let the same happen to two year olds!

Florence Nightingale

The Francis Report on the scandals of Stafford Hospital was published last week, and unless you have never been in the care of the NHS, you will you not be surprised by some of the findings. I speak as an ex nurse, a patient, a friend and relative of patients in a variety of hospitals as recently as last week. Sadly, everyone I know can confirm evidence of poor caring and sloppy nursing care. I have yet to find fault with the emergency services, but it’s recovery on the wards – the very place which can make the greatest contribution to the patient’s recovery – that so often seems to slip. Florence Nightingale said:

Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.

What would she have made of just one example of the unkindness my dear husband experienced recently I wonder? Recovering from a very traumatic operation, he got up one night to ask a nurse if she would move a particularly loud machine from the ward into the corridor, so he and the other patients could sleep and recover. ‘What about us? We have to put up with the noise out here.’ was her retort! It was never moved.

As Florence would have said:

If you knew how unreasonably sick people suffer from reasonable causes of distress, you would take more pains about all these things.

The Francis Report is full of infuriating jargon, weasel words and failure to stand up to the sacred cow (the NHS). People have indicated that laying blame would lead to scapegoating. Can you imagine this happening in any other sector? We would all be hung out to dry!

There are numerous interwoven problems that develop such culture that has, according to Jeremy Hunt MP, ‘crushed the compassion of doctors and nurses’. This is emblematic of a leadership that is so far removed, no one actually knows what is happening at the core; obsessive targets and a huge emphasis on qualifications leaves nurses thinking that plumping a pillow or having a friendly chat with a lonely worried patient is not their responsibility. We have all heard comments about why feeding patients, changing wet sheets or making someone comfortable is no longer the job of the qualified nurse. I remember the days when the wards were ruled by a rod of iron by the Nursing Sister, and we as nurses would be absolutely slaughtered if the ward was not pristine, the patients uncomfortable or the flowers not standing to military attention. It appears we have slipped to the other end of the continuum.

Now wake up Early Years colleagues and observe the parallels: if we go down the route of ‘the better the qualification the more two year olds‘, I predict we will see the same decline in care. Will children wait longer to have their nappies changed, noses wiped, or made comfortable? Will we have to cut short long and chatty lunches? Will we have reduced time to play, talk, cuddle and provide the loving engagement which is every child’s right? I suspect the answer to these questions will be yes. Never forget, care is the very backbone of education.

Be warned: look carefully at all elements of the More Great Childcare Report; open your eyes and see the implications. And once again, listen to Florence Nightingale on this matter:

Let whoever is in charge keep this simple question in her head… how can I provide for the right thing to be always done?

Would you want us to descend to the level of inhumanity seen at Stafford Hospital? Consider this thoughtfully when replying to the consultation. The consultation document is called ‘Consultation on Early Education and Childcare Staff Deployment’ and the submission form you need to complete can be found here.

Politics is not welcome in the nursery

I write this blog with a sense of anger and despair. Even playing Verdi very loudly and a glass of wine could not quell my alarm.  Why such gloom?  Our Minister Elizabeth Truss has decided to continue with her ill-considered plan to reduce ratios (click here to read the Minister’s speech today at the Policy Exchange in full).  I am not alone in my gloom if the responses from the sector on Linkedin and Twitter are anything to go by. The comments made by the Minister in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, where she says she has a mandate to change the ratios, makes my blood boil. What mandate?  No one I know has anything but derision for this idea.

She has hardly visited nurseries, ignored all our advice, clearly has never read any research and did a flying visit to France to check two nurseries there and, on this basis it would seem, has decided to reduce the ratios from one adult with four two year olds to one adult with six two year olds. I also understand she will make a similar recommendation for ratios in baby rooms increasing to one adult with four babies.

Her premise is that we can use the reduced cost by cramming an extra two children to every staff member to either pay for a more qualified staff member or reduce the cost to parents. This fails on a number of counts:

  1. The qualification of a staff member has no relevance when you are alone with six two year olds. Qualified or not, little toddlers need hips and laps and lots of love and adult attention.
  2. The reduced staff costs will be increased by agency staff as the permanent staff drop like flies from stress and exhaustion.
  3. Parents will not be happy to find that they have to sign up to higher ratios with more risk to their children for a chance of a very limited fee reduction.
  4. Two tiers of provision may result where better organised nurseries achieving economies of scale may be able to keep ratios higher with poorer nurseries being forced to reduce ratios and decrease the quality of care. I fear poorer children will lose out.
  5. Risk of accidents will increase. What will we do, ban all interesting creative activities and tie them into chairs?

And then a number of further questions come to mind:

  • How will we change nappies and spend time on this intimate activity, talking to the child or enjoying a little singing game when we are trying to keep our eyes in the back of our heads to make sure 5 other toddlers are safe?
  • How will we balance the learning needs of all six toddlers and plan for each of them?  We are being forced to operate a mass approach to childcare causing us as practitioners to fail children and parents in our mandate to provide inspiring, creative and high quality early years education.
  • Has the Minister any idea as to the number of two year olds coming through the Two Year Old Programme that have language and behavioural issues and need additional care and attention?
  • How will we spend any time at all with parents? How will we meet the EYFS requirements?  Ofsted will surely see a decrease in standards.

I could go on and on (luckily I won’t!).  Toddlers aged two years are very different from those aged two and a half or those nearly three.  They need different activities and experiences.  They cannot be put in a classroom and taught.  They need a personal touch, lots of negotiation, high levels of communication and engagement, fun activities indoors and outside. We have a raft of research going back as far as Froebel which identifies the importance of childhood and what works best for our small children. Our longitudinal studies are examples of best practice valued the world over.

Ironically Mr Gove, Mrs Truss’ boss, is trying to reverse some of the political policies which have damaged a previous generation of young adults. I suggest he now make a forensic examination of what his junior Minister is advocating against all advice.  Otherwise he will have presided over a similar legacy as the one he is currently addressing. Except this time it will be of his making.

Remember the words of Graham Green in The Power and the Glory:

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

Asking Robin Van Persie to kick the childcare football straight into the Equalities net

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.