Proposals to allow schools to start looking after two-year-olds go to the heart of a long-standing tension in education policy: is early childhood provision about childcare for working parents or is it about child development, to better prepare children for school?
Childcare minister Elizabeth Truss has announced she would like schools that already have early years provision for three and four-year-olds to extend to two-year-olds by September, and to open longer hours to accommodate working mothers and fathers.
As the minister says, poorer children enter school well behind their better-off peers on a range of measures. Anything that can narrow the gap before school must be a good thing.
Parental employment not only helps to reduce child poverty levels, but evidence also shows that employment has benefits beyond financial gain, including adult mental health, reduced isolation, and gender equality.
So what is the problem? First, it is not clear why schools are assumed to be appropriate for very young children. At 24 months, many children are not yet toilet trained. Their language development is rudimentary, often with only close family understanding their words.
They also need intimate and warm, caring relationships with adults that they know well and who know them well. Most will need support at mealtimes. They also benefit from small groups – of 12 or under – and can be easily overwhelmed by large, noisy rooms.
If schools can provide all these features, then why not? But few schools can.
The government’s proposal to remove the red tape of separate Ofsted registration for schools wanting to care for two-year-olds, means that no independent body will be responsible for ensuring appropriate arrangements are in place.
There is also some evidence that Ofsted inspections are not particularly sensitive to the needs of children under three. It may seem obvious, but from two years to three years is one third of a child’s life. It is considerably different from the changes that take place in children between five and six years of age.
There are social and cognitive gains to be had by children who experience early education from aged two. But those gains are only made if provision is high quality and led by well-trained staff who remain in post for some time.
Toddlers needs stability
The second problem – for which admittedly there is less clear evidence – is the flexibility of extended hours.
Most school-based provision conforms to school hours, with many schools offering school-aged children after-school programmes both for educational enrichment and to help working parents with childcare.
Many mothers with young children would prefer to work part time, two or three days per week. Most school-based nurseries offer five days per week, usually half-day sessions morning or afternoon. For working parents this is unhelpful.
But are two long days in childcare good for two-year-olds? Attendance patterns in childcare vary enormously. The research that demonstrates the developmental benefits of early years provision for children is virtually all based on five-day-a-week programmes.
Playtime or naptime?
Two more factors seem to argue in favour of a few hours over more days. Very young children benefit from predictable routines, knowing what is happening next, and having some familiarity with regular experiences. If two days a week are taken on Tuesday and Wednesday, for example, that means five days before the next session, and so it would be difficult for a toddler to experience a familiar routine. Will the toddler remember the staff, and will the staff feel as close to the toddler who comes for two days, as those who come for five days?
And the nature of time spent in childcare changes during the course of the day. Routines tend to rely on structured play activities, stories and games for a morning session and an afternoon session just after lunch.
When I worked in full-day care, the television went on around 4.30pm, while staff washed paint pots and cleared the room for the next day. Admittedly, it is some time since I worked directly in nurseries, but there can be no doubt that staff are tired at the end of day, and are less likely to be providing the kind of language support and developmental activities that typify the beginning of the day.
In terms of enrichment for poorer children, 15 hours over two days is probably only about three to four hours of stimulating activity, as opposed to five days, which would provide ten hours of enriching activity.
Finally, do we really want very young children in institutions from 8am-6pm? Our most privileged children have nannies, who usually take the children to nursery for a few hours. These children have the benefits of group care combined with the warmth, and informality of domestic care.
Very few working parents can afford the luxury of full-time home care mixed with part-time group care. There is no doubt that child poverty cannot be reduced without increased maternal employment. There is also no doubt that by creating the conditions for poorer women to enter the labour market without jobs that pay enough to lift families out of poverty, and without very high quality childcare, we will fail on both goals.