I chair the committee of a small, rural charity-run pre-school. We operate from a modest prefab building on a school site, and are lucky enough to have a sizable garden with a covered play space, a substantial summer-house, and a wooded area. We are tenants, rather than having any operational relationship to the school. Each September, thanks to the impact of single entry (which on principle I object to – you can read more about why here ) our numbers are low and our finances incredibly tight. Dedicated staff are kind enough to not mind our having to ask them to work fewer sessions. By the Spring, we can lower our worry levels by a few notches, and by last July in particular, we were bursting at the seams. We are, I imagine, much the same as thousands of other independent, voluntary committee led pre-schools up and down the country. All of us believe in our independence, our charitable status, our ability to match ourselves the community we serve. All of us are finding the current politico-economic climate tough. More than tough.
Our pre-school has undergone a substantial change of late. Our Early Years Professional, who has been managing the setting for 17 years, has left to undertake post-graduate study. We have an experienced team, a strong deputy who has readily stepped up to the plate of manager, and a proactive committee. As chair, my background as an Early Years inspector for Ofsted and then Tribal, has proved useful as we collectively steady the ship and steer ourselves through this transitional time. My overall assessment of the degree to which we are coping with this significant change would be overwhelmingly positive.
But it hasn’t been easy. There have been some challenging conversations, as we reinvent ourselves; I’ve seen many times over how a pre-school can focus it’s survival – as well as its capacity to grow – around the personality and commitment of one practitioner. I think it is a phenomenon quite commonly found in rural areas, where there is hardly an abundance of suitably qualified and experienced professionals. Our pre-school matched this description, and before we were faced with the reality, most people connected to the group would have found it hard to imagine us succeeding without her. But we are managing, all the same. But, as I said, some discussions have been difficult to get through. During one such conversation, a senior member of the team wondered out loud why we must be run by a committee. She felt a little frustrated, and I can understand why. Committee’s come and go, with varying skill sets and levels of enthusiasm. They get to make decisions that affect the staff team’s working lives to a significant degree, but they are given this serious responsibility without any requirement to understand, on a professional level, the issues at hand.
I often find myself saying that there is something laughable and inherently flawed in a system that has me, a volunteer, a novice, managing a team of professionals, who are undertaking one of the most important tasks in society. As a pragmatist I get on with the job, yet when a more strategic view-point is adopted, it does look like utter madness. Nevertheless, I can, despite this view, wholeheartedly defend the model which our team member so rightly questioned. The pre-school movement began in the early 1960s. A response to the lack of nursery provision for young children, individual parents set up playgroups in their homes, and their popularity meant that many of them quickly moved to larger premises, village or church halls, in the main. Both my husband and I have memories of the groups we attended, one in a Methodist Hall, another in the proprietor’s garage. By the time I was three, playgroups were already being described, by senior politician, Sir Keith Joseph, as “an essential social service”. And by 1982, the Pre-school Learning Alliance had 17,000 members and Diana, Princess of Wales as its patron.
Our group began life in a private home in the tiniest of Devon villages. We’ve had, I think, three further homes since then, and have been in our current space for just over a decade. We are a PLA member, having adopted its constitution. Thus we are as typical a group as you are ever likely to find. The PLA and its members have seen a heck of a lot of policy come and go since its inception. We are, 50 years on from that moment, metaphorically awash with new policy in the childcare and the education arena. Having recently become a primary school governor, I can see how the agenda of constant-change is no less intense for over-5 provision as it is for those in early years. Crossing between these two worlds I see much that is common to both. Disparate strands of decision-making that issue forth from the DfE and the Treasury are hard to fuse together into any coherent vision on both sides of the five-year old fence. Peddling so hard to keep up with all this change does get in the way of actually just doing the job we are charged with.
Let’s take a look at the kinds of policy shifts I am referring to. Example one; Universal free school meals for all Key Stage 1 children. On the surface, noble, but underneath, one is left asking ‘why?’. Where did the money come from? Might it have been better spent on building new schools or improving the ones we have , given the growing crisis in primary places ? And is this really more important than finding more sustainable ways of teaching families how to feed their children more healthily? Two; opening new free schools and the expansion of academies has radically changed the landscape of English education. 66% of secondary schools and 13% of primary schools now have academy or free school status. I am no expert on the free school movement, but my observation on it all goes something like this. It seems much easier to win funding for a new building or building improvements when you are a free school or an academy. There is yet to be any convincing evidence that these schools are inherently better for our children, so why the favouritism? And at what cost to the rest of the education system? Indeed, there are some people wondering who now ‘owns’ the once state-owned assets of school sites up and down the land. Again, my amateur-commentator status precludes my from making any truly astute observations, but I am fascinated that so few people are questioning academy / free school growth from this perspective.
Three: this autumn sees a radical overhaul of Special Educational Needs provision in primary schools. For a long time now, at pre-school level, we have genuinely struggled to access anything that one might describe as consistent, coherent support for children with additional needs. This worrying characteristic of early years provision now looks set to be extended beyond 5. The changes seem to me, as a governor with direct responsibility over resources and staffing, to simply be designed to make the job of supporting certain pupils even harder. On the face of it, it looks like an attempt to introduce market forces into the provision of support for our most vulnerable children. And four; Pumping up the proposed support for childcare costs by a substantial amount at last week’s budget. Now again, I am no economist, but I do understand that if you only support a system at the consumer end, and don’t do anything to level the playing field or support the supply side, all you do is feed the continuous cycle of inflated costs. If parents are given more money to pay for it, private childcare businesses will charge more, but this increased revenue won’t necessarily lead to improved quality for the children.
I have plenty more seemingly disparate but actually interconnected examples to share. But perhaps it would be more pertinent to focus in on just one more, and draw out its relevance to my own situation as chair of a pre-school that struggles to survive. Last week saw Royal Assent given to the Children and Families Act 2014. Amongst many other things, this legislation now gives Childminders the ‘right’ to belong to an agency, who will assume responsibility on behalf of its members for administration, fee setting, and quality assurance. Ultimately it will mean that the agency itself is inspected by Ofsted and not, critically, its individual members. I have already witnessed so much resistance to this move, and my belief is that under the leadership of people such as Penny Webb, there is as yet a distance to travel in terms of fighting back. And why is it important to do so? Simply put, because it will create a two-tier system amongst childminders and will ultimately impact on quality. It fires at the heart of the independence of which so many childminders are fiercely (and rightly) proud. And if this legislation can undermine the independence of one part of the childcare sector, who is to say that, given a second term in the DfE, Ms Truss and Mr Gove won’t launch a similar attack on the independent pre-school movement?
Lat week Michael Wilshaw wrote to all Early Years Inspectors urging them to do a much better job of ensuring that pre-school provision is preparing our children for school. The letter uses the phrases ‘teach’ or ‘teaching’ 18 times over two and a half pages. In interviews he gave during the week on the issue of his letter to inspectors, Wilshaw talked in bullish terms of not putting up with any settings who talk of a child-led philosophy, and more ominously, not continuing the employment of any inspector who tolerates or dares promote such an approach. This worrying move towards more structured, formalised learning environment for our very young children should be a real concern to us. Two year olds are already finding themselves in school buildings, as part of a trial . Will we really be told whether this experiment worked in favour of the children?
The independent pre-school movement is a proud one. The process of maintaining quality within the sector should be relatively straightforward. Researchers, practitioners and the academic community should apply their rigorous standards of research-in-action, and tell the community what works best to promote the progress of children. The regulator should be aware of these findings, nay support them, and then task its inspectors with ensuring that every setting is working to what research tells is the best way forward. Somehow we have drifted away from this sensible model, to a place where personal ideology of key players, and the challenging economics of the time, are having an unnecessary and dangerous influence. Every policy that has issued forth since 2010 election has been motivated by political ideology, personal experiences of those with the power to legislate, or treasury concerns about the availability of a large enough workforce to prop up our ailing economy. With a year to go to the next election, we now have thinly veiled vote winning tactics thrown in for good measure.
The net result? Simply put, I fear for the future of the pre-school I care so much about. Government should be giving me, the committee and our remarkable staff team all the support in the world to ensure that the 30 or so children we care for get the very best start in life. Instead, they are cutting our budget, undermining our independence, threatening us with being swallowed up into a nearby school (whether or not it wants us) and contradicting the very evidence-based philosophy upon which we have done our good work for decades. We do what we do for £3.60 per hour, per head. This figure, the amount we receive from our local authority, hasn’t changed in five years. Less than the price of a Latte and slice of cake. That we are not-for-profit, and managed in part by the very families who use our service is the true beauty of our system; we are for the people, by the people, not distracted by the need to satisfy share-holders or others. This is, in essence, my answer to our staff member who questioned the way we are organised. We do it because it works, and works brilliantly for the children whom we serve. But for how much longer? I do not know. I really don’t.