Last Thursday we held the 16th Margaret Horn Debate. I set this up as an annual lecture but over the years it has morphed into a debate focusing on many contested issues in the Early Years. It reminds us just how political the sector is and the relevance of big economic and social issues on our lives. Since its formation, we have covered social enterprise, poverty, ratios, quality, multi-generational approaches, men in childcare, child health and obesity, and many others as we shaped a modern Early Years sector out of an outdated, crusty model.
Our question this year was ‘Is Nursery the Best Place for Children?’
The panel was chaired by freelance journalist Meredith Jones Russell, who knows the sector because she is a regular contributor to Nursery World. She was joined by:
- Marc James, Quality Assurance and Registration Lead at Tiney
- Dr Norma Raynes, Chief Executive at From Generation 2 Generation
- Owen Thomas, Managing Director and Head of Programmes at Fathers (Future Men)
- June O’Sullivan, CEO at LEYF
- Sian Aiken, Parent
The debate was wide ranging and addressed the challenge of a hybrid market-led sector, which also requires Government funding to deliver a contract for universal 15 or 30-hour funded places. We repeated the old refrain that insufficient Government funding has a negative ripple effect especially on quality, staff pay & benefits (and their morale) and the unaffordable level of fees for parents. We rehearsed the arguments of quality and what that looks like in terms of staffing, environment and children’s experiences. We debated the staffing crisis and the disregard from Government who continually fails to see the importance of our sector’s contribution to the national infrastructure, both in terms of economic benefits to parents who work and the social and educational benefits to children. We considered the role of Dads and if the stigma around men in childcare was changing.
We then examined the consequence of choosing words to describe our work, for example:
What do we mean when we talk about affordability or quality?
I asked why people haven’t copied LEYF and called their staff ‘teachers’ as we found that this has benefited our teachers hugely; it describes what they do irrespective of their qualifications. Here is a link to a blog I wrote on the subject earlier this year.
The advantage of using Zoom for our debates is that we have many more people sign up and attend and people can then access the recording online, but we miss the energy that a ‘big debate’ can elicit when it is done in person. Therefore, the digital questions sent via the Zoom’s chat function are really important. They provoked further discussion such as:
- How to join forces as a sector to get the Government to sit up and listen after so many years of neglect.
- How can we show the benefits of children attending nurseries, especially with regards to their speech and language before entering Primary School?
- Can we really meet babies’ needs in nurseries? Can we provide the sort of loving and caring relationship they get at home?
One of the panelists was Sian, a parent whose toddler has been settling in nursery over the past month. She was invited onto the panel having had a spontaneous conversation with me about how surprised she was about the emerging benefits attending nursey was having on her child. She was so eloquent as she articulated her own amazement at his all-round learning and development. She noted how the LEYF staff discount of 70% off her nursery fees was hugely helpful and meant she could work more hours which solved her domestic financial challenges. It meant she was not expected to find “family” care for an extra day to try and balance living costs with parental fees. The pressure on grandparents to fulfil this role was explained by Norma Raynes, who addressed the physical demands caring for a small child has on grandparents. She also made the same points as I did to Martin Lewis that since Norman Tebbit made us all get on our bikes, few of us have access to our parents, even if they wanted to be part-time carers!
Finally, somebody asked if we needed a union for the Early Years. I think there is one? Please respond if there is an active union. It’s important that now, we build our profile, strengthen our status and get even better at collaborating so we have a stronger voice to drive our call to action for a better ECEC for every child.
Please listen, tweet comments and your personal call to action.