If Children Really Are Our Future, Why Are We Stalling?

November 23rd 2023

The 16th November marked Social Enterprise Day, so Happy Social Enterprise to you all. My dream is for every business to operate like a social enterprise and never have to explain it to anyone again!

That said, I set up the Margaret Horn Debate on Social Enterprise Day seventeen years ago. It was a celebration of the original Director of the small local charity from which I developed LEYF.  It was about giving ordinary women who do extraordinary things a voice.

Over the years, it has offered a chance to debate and discuss the many significant and political issues that are highlighted when you work with small children.

Last week the panel discussed the complex implications of the Government’s planned expansion of childcare due to be rolled out in April 2024 which was chaired ably by the FT’s work and careers deputy editor, Bethan Staton.

It made me reflect on how far we have come. In 1997, we had the first 10-year Early Years National Strategy that kicked off a national discussion about the benefits of Early Years to small children. It led to us properly research Early Years quality, learning and its impact on big issues such as poverty and economic infrastructure. Practice was shaped by the findings from EPPE plus we also got the EYFS and SureStart on board.  Deeper analysis was conducted here in the UK and across the world about the impact of Early Years Education and Care on small children.

It ran out of steam in 2007 when a series of governments failed to continue the investment and instead titivated around the edge, sometimes to repair the bad policy they made but the emphasis was on doing EYEC on the cheap. We had 21 childcare ministers with an average stay of 12 months, so there was no voice in government for us. The marketplace shaped growth so poor children lost out and we were sidelined. We became the Cinderella of education, forced into leading continual campaigns to raise the importance of funding the sector to survive.

Now we are front and centre of public policy. The Government announced its expansion plan to double the available hours to children. Interestingly,42% of parents say what the Government will do will impact their voting in the forthcoming election. The Princess of Wales is also leading her campaign to shape up our understanding of ECEC which gives us another window of opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, this year’s Margaret Horn discussion explored how we might build a coalition to manage this expansion without drowning in a sea of debt, staff shortages, poor quality pedagogy and a public misunderstanding about what we do. We also need to think about the role children play in our future.  Many of you will have heard me talk about who will be there for us when we are living long and unhealthy lives. Who will pay the taxes, provide the care and keep the future going?

With this in mind, here are the top questions to discuss with your teams, students, apprentices and parents.  We need to be on top of this, and we can only do it with a shared coherent voice.


One voice, one message:
Early Years Matters



The country needs to appreciate a culture of care and value the importance of care as the glue of society.  We need to value children and our duty to nurture them as our future citizens.  Can this work in a market model?  Is childhood just a space for commodification?

Key Question: Who will look after us when we are old?

Relevant Report: https://shapingus.centreforearlychildhood.org/


Political Voice

Childcare is a political space. It always has because we touch on the big issues. The trouble is the politicians think in 4/5 years terms and we need a long-term strategy. We never have a minister for long enough to understand the complexities of the sector. Early Years Education and Care is a place social activism?

Key Question: Will a coalition be able to overcome the bunkers and silos to bring about consensus in the sector sufficient to drive real change?

Relevant Report: https://earlyyearscommission.org/call-for-evidence/



We need proper funding. We are operating on £5 an hour (on average) for a hourly rate that is now double that!  To plan for the expansion, we need the funding rates but we are relying on indicative figures for 2yo and under 2s to plan. The current entitlement is designed to be skewed towards higher earners so only 20% of low-income families benefit.

Key Question: Should we change the criteria that allows 80/20% benefit to affluent families to a different set of entitlement criteria to benefit more children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Relevant Reporthttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/nov/20/richer-families-in-england-more-likely-to-benefit-from-childcare-expansion?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other



Is the expansion of private equity investment as a profitable investment opportunity the way forward? It funds growth but how will that growth ensure balanced services across poor and affluent areas?

Key Question: Should taxpayers’ money support childcare which is operated by overseas PE investors and fund a shareholder dividend?

Relevant Report: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/aug/04/golden-goose-why-private-equity-is-eyeing-up-uk-essential-services



How do we build quality when we have such a staff shortage and many of those completing their Level 3 have been trained by low quality training providers using the apprentice routes? We are seeing people now who have no understanding of theory, child development or how children learn. They do not know the ’why’ or the rationale for their practice.

Key Question: Should Ofsted inspect all the private training organisations?

Relevant Report: https://feweek.co.uk/what-training-providers-need-from-ofsteds-next-chief-inspector/



While the attraction and recruitment of staff is an endemic problem, retention is an even bigger issue. Staff are leaving because of low status and feeling devalued by the Government.Pay is too low and there is a shortage of training and career development opportunities. Now they are also worrying about job security and fear that their setting is closing.  According to the Mortgage Strategy Unit, it would take the salaries of 5 nursery teachers combined living in an average priced house to be able to buy it.Three refuse workers clubbing together would get the same house and 2 postal workers could afford it.

Key Question: Unison talks of getting to £15per hour as a baseline, but what does ‘the right salary’ look like?

Relevant Report:  https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/sites/default/files/minds_matter_report_pre-school_learning_alliance.pdf


£100million that is being promised is to be shared among the EY sector and schools to provide capital funding and build more spaces. This won’t be enough and there is talk of remeasuring the spaces to take more children.

Key Question: Should we be alert to this and do some research to ascertain what constitutes good space?

Relevant Report: https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/news/2023/10/government-announces-%C2%A3100m-capital-funding-early-years-and-wraparound-provision


A Voice from the Floor

Professor Sir Al Aynsley–Green dialled in to lambast the politicians for their disregard, political difference and denial of the importance of children. He pleaded that we need to get the Coalition to work so we can act together and kick the doors down to get them to listen about why children are so important. He criticised politicians for their indifference and denial of the importance of childhood for our future success as a nation. Rome is burning he said, while the politicians are just fiddling!

Magic Wand Moment

Neil Leitch: Create an Early Years cabinet minister responsible for children.

Courteney Donaldson: Fund the sector correctly.

Josie Urwin: We need a political leader that understands the importance of children.

Sarah Ronan: I would change the funding rates for 3-and 4-year-olds and link funding specifically to the pay strategy.

June O’Sullivan: I would create a social enterprise nursery sector underpinned by a pedagogy for social justice.

What do we want from you and your magic wand?


Watch the 2023 Margaret Horn Debate here

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