If we want to improve childcare in Britain, we should learn from the example of Europe

Every child in Britain deserves better than the current system provides. Closing the gap between childcare and education is the first, crucial step

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The Independent Online

Being a parent combines great highs and unforgettable experiences with an awful lot of worry. Being completely trusted by another person is a huge responsibility. The fretting no doubt continues well beyond school, although I am yet to experience that. Yet entrusting your child to a nursery or a childminder can be one of the most nerve-wracking steps for any parent.

It is one that we are increasingly taking. Whether because of economic necessity or a desire to fulfil the career potential of increasingly educated women, dual income households are now the norm in developing nations.

It's not about the money

As more couples find themselves unable to make do on just one salary, the demand for childcare has rocketed. The way we work has profoundly changed too. Modern technology has blurred the boundaries between work and home and we now have a culture of constant availability on phone and email. Politicians are far from unique in finding that evenings and weekends are no longer sacrosanct. So working parents need flexible and affordable childcare they can trust.

I recently visited France to look at their provision for young children. Even in the cab on the way to the nursery I was struck by the stories of the interpreter and the embassy staff about how simple it is to receive support and access childcare. They told me matter-of-factly that high quality home based and nursery care is widely available. In Britain we tend to use words like juggle, implying a perpetually unstable situation. We discuss the lack of availability. But most of all we talk about how horrendously expensive it is. And then we worry.

So why this difference? It isn’t about the money the Government puts in. Britain spends as much as France supporting childcare. It seemed rather nurseries and child-minders were more part of the furniture, as in a continuing education system. Nursery managers are paid on a par with primary teachers.

The highly respected Ecole Maternelle offer a teacher led experience for children age 2 and up, where children read stories talk and engage. The crèche offers structured groups led by qualified staff. There is also a broader social view that nursery education is a good thing. That it helps children learn to socialise and that particularly for deprived households can promote the development of vocabulary and the basis of later school progress.

Although that point of view is growing in Britain, and there have been improvements in qualifications and practice in our nurseries, many people in Britain still think that early education is not as important as school. The recent debate about whether or not nursery staff should have GCSEs in English and Maths illustrate that. The salary differential between early years and primary is far higher in England that it is in other countries. Many nursery staff are paid barely more than the minimum wage, at £6.60 per hour on average.

Our Primary teachers are some of the best paid, our nursery staff at the bottom of the table.

As well as that, early years professionals are given little room to exercise professional judgement operating under the least flexible staffing rules in Europe, which also means for any given income, there is a very low cap on salaries.

If nurseries take on staff with these qualifications they will be given more freedom over staffing, for example being able to run with groups of six two years olds rather than four, as at the moment. This level of qualification and flexibility would put us on a similar footing to countries like France.

Learning from Europe

Evidence backs the French approach (and for that matter the Danish, Germans and other European countries that take the same view). Quality early education makes a difference for many decades and a graduate being present has a long term effect. The latest TIMSS survey showed the gulf in mathematical ability which exists between fourteen and fifteen in England and places like Singapore and Hong Kong is already present by the time they are ten.

It is in the interests of children, parents and those who work in schools and childcare not to have such a gap between the salaries, qualifications and professional flexibility for the under 5s and the over 5s. As we understand more about development of the brain it is clear how important these first years are. It is vital that they should not be undervalued. Many in schools and nurseries already understand this.

Durand Academy in Brixton run a nursery at their early years school from age 3–7, which introduces children to structure at an early age in a way that engages and inspires them. Swimming lessons teach children to dress themselves as well as to swim, and compulsory school uniform gives routine that is crucial to the ability to learn.

The children who join Durand at nursery age have a head start on their peers who have not joined as young. Nurseries like Kids Unlimited are employing teachers on their Oxford University staff site to give young children a taste of Mandarin. I am talking about lessons in which children learn to count while listening to music; discover which animals live in hot and cold environments; and learn about adding and subtracting by counting toys.

I want to go further so that we have early years and childcare provision that is part of the education system – not separate from it. The early years profession should be a more lucrative and attractive one for school leavers and university graduates. That means Early Years Teachers will take the same tests in literacy and numeracy as their schools colleagues. Primary teachers should be able to switch into in early years and early years teachers should be able to work in primary. I want to see schemes to attract bright graduates extended to early years.

Childcare qualifications below graduate level will have an entry requirement of GCSE in English and Maths and we will ensure all follow a rigorous Early Years Educator framework.

I also want it to be easier for private and voluntary nurseries to offer teacher led classes by making it clear that this set-up is well regarded by Ofsted and this model, as well as structured groups for two year olds, is fully compatible with the EYFS.

We need to close the gap between our education and childcare systems so that children benefit from engagement with highly qualified, well rewarded professionals from the start. I want parents, when they go to work, to be confident in the knowledge there is a wide choice of high quality places available locally. Places where children are gaining and growing.