We’re stuck with the same debates about childcare as half a century ago

Hop along now dears. HRH Queen Mary with nursery children in 1930. PA Photos/ PA Archive

Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds should be taught in schools from the age of two, according to Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw. His intervention is the latest in a long history of debate in Britain about how best to care for the nation’s under-fives.

While there have been private nurseries in Britain since the 19th century, provided by factory owners and philanthropists, until the middle decades of the 20th century the state played a minimal role. The second half of the century saw changing attitudes towards pre-school childcare, but the same questions that were being asked in the 1950s and 1960s are still being asked today. At what age should children should start childcare – at two, three or younger? Where and by whom should they be looked after – in a day nursery, nursery school, or by a childminder?

Further questions were also being asked then about whether care or education should be the main goal of early years services. And what should be done for children who cannot be looked after by their mothers or those whose home conditions mean they would benefit from time spent outside it? Should extra effort be made for certain groups of children, such as an only child who lacks company at home?

Despite fevered debates on the subject, such as Belle Tutaev’s campaign for more nursery education which led to the founding of the playgroup movement in 1961, and the social and political dynamism of these decades, there was little change in the level of state-provided pre-school childcare. There were striking similarities in attitudes to childcare of successive governments during the second half of the 20th century, despite the different parties in power.

Leave families to it

British policy took a laissez faire approach and left families to make private arrangements for the care of children under five. Decisions were influenced by issues of limited resources combined with ideological concerns about the respective roles of the state and the family and competing theories of child development. A lack of funding for many child welfare schemes meant they could not always meet the aspirations society held.

All this contributed to the low level of pre-school childcare available in comparison to other European countries. In the late 1980s, 22% of Britain’s three million under-fives received nursery education with only 1% attending council day nurseries. In contrast, in France the government provided full-time care for 33% of two-year-olds and in Denmark the figure was 29%.

Three main ideas about childcare dominated government childcare policy until the end of the century. First, care for the under-fives was the responsibility of individual families, not the state. Second, young children were best off at home with their mothers. Third, any care that was offered to the under-fives should be cost-effective.

At the end of the 20th century, the government’s role and position changed substantially. During the Thatcher and Major Conservative governments, childcare became increasingly regulated. The 1988 Children Bill, part of the Local Government Act required local authorities to review day-care provision in their area, and the 1989 Children Act obliged local authorities to register and inspect childcare services.

Labour stepped in

However, the real change came with the 1997-2010 Labour government, which rejected that all childcare should be in private hands and accepted the need for a state-led childcare policy. As part of the National Childcare Strategy, the Labour government also instituted the Sure Start initiative, which aimed to improve childcare, early education, health and family support with an emphasis on outreach and community development.

Tony Blair at the launch of a Sure Start centre in 2003. Chris Ison/PA Archive

Initially aimed at challenging disadvantage it was later decided to provide a children’s centre in every area not just the most disadvantaged. In his Comprehensive Spending Review speech in July 2004, the then chancellor, Gordon Brown, declared the 21st century as the era of universal childcare and early-years services.

A more mixed picture developed under the 2010 coalition government: free nursery places were introduced for disadvantaged two-year-olds, but this was financed at the expense of Sure Start, as local authority budget cuts led the closure of some centres.

What adults really remember

However, my research has found that adults’ memories of their childcare experiences are largely determined by the quality of family life they experienced, rather than how they were looked-after at school or nursery when they were young.

Based on interviews with adults who had attended childcare between the 1940s and 1990s in Coventry, London and Oxfordshire, I found that those who grew up in what they described as a “happy home” were likely to remember childcare positively regardless of what those arrangements were. They were also more likely to say they tried to replicate the same type of care for their own children.

While good-quality childcare can neutralise the negative effects on children of deprivation and disadvantage, early intervention working with parents, as well as children, will have the best long-term outcomes. So, the government’s plans to increase the number of free childcare hours for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week needs to take place in tandem with continued support for families in the form of schemes such as Sure Start or the Troubled Families programme.

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