Transforming Nursery Education


Peter Moss & Helen Penn

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    Why We Have Written This Book?

    Early childhood services in Britain have a lot going for them. A long and rich tradition of innovative work, by individuals and organisations. A resourceful and committed workforce. Membership of a European Union which provides many opportunities for cross-national exchange and collaboration.

    Yet despite these considerable advantages, early childhood services are in a critical state and at a critical stage. The services are fragmented, inflexible, incoherent and full of inequalities, unable to meet the changing and varied needs of families. They rely on a workforce most of whom are poorly paid and poorly trained. Like many other parts of the national infrastructure, early childhood services suffer the consequences of chronic under-resourcing.

    In a centralised state such as Britain has increasingly become, much of the responsibility for the critical situation we are now in must be assigned to the action, or inaction, of successive governments. There has been a history of missed opportunities to develop a national policy on early childhood services. Instead, obstacles have actually been placed in the way of the future development of such a policy, as a result of policy measures introduced elsewhere without consideration given to their consequences for early childhood services – for example, education legislation over the last 15 years which has virtually ignored early childhood services while having major implications for them. Developments have been allowed to go forward unhindered without considering their longer-term implications or the relative merits of different development options – for example, the growth of a large unsubsidised private market in ‘day care’ services or the expansion of part-time nursery classes. Growing numbers of public and private agencies (e.g. TECs, the Home Office, employers) have identified an ‘interest in early childhood services, but this proliferation has increased fragmentation and lack of coherence as different agencies focus narrowly on one particular service role or one particular group of service users. Questionable concepts and structures have gone unquestioned – for example, starting compulsory and primary schooling at 5 (or, for most children in Northern Ireland, 4) and the validity of dividing early childhood services into two separate systems labelled ‘day care’ and ‘education’. Legislation has been introduced requiring local authorities to review their early childhood services – but no parallel duty has been placed on central government to do the same nationally.

    Instead of the development of a national policy on early childhood services based on continuous debate and regular review, there has been a history of occasional, narrowly focused government initiatives: for example, the 1972 Education White Paper, the Government's conference on ‘Low-Cost Day Provision for the Under Fives’ in 1976, the ‘day care’ parts of the Children Act 1989, the childcare disregard introduced in the 1993 budget. Most recently, there has been the decision to provide vouchers for pre-school education for all 4 year olds.

    There are some positive features to emerge from this latest proposal, in particular the recognition that education can and should take place across the whole range of services for 4 year olds, not just in nursery schools and classes. But these cannot disguise the fact that, once again, an opportunity for a more fundamental rethink of early childhood services has been missed. The voucher scheme does not come out of a wider review and analysis of current early childhood services and future options. There has been no questioning of ends, no discussion of the various values that might underpin services, no review of means, no assessment of different options for service development. Consequently, the voucher scheme is irrelevant to the main issues confronting early childhood services.

    Because none of the succession of government initiatives has been grounded in any longer-term and developmental process of political and public debate about early childhood services, each has failed to identify, define and address the critical questions. What are the functions of early childhood services? What age range should these services cover? On what values and principles should services be based? In the light of these questions, what are the most appropriate types of service provision? Should there be an integrated or split system of services? Should there be coherence across services in certain areas? What training is needed for staff? What are the costs and what are the benefits of early childhood services? Who should contribute to these costs and on what basis should costs be allocated between responsible parties? How should early childhood services relate to education and other services for older children?

    Without answering these questions, it is impossible to judge, for example, whether vouchers as a method of funding are in the best interests of children, families and early childhood services. Without answers to these questions, there is little chance of creating a national policy and a national framework for implementing that policy which will enable Britain to move beyond individual examples of good practice to an integrated and coherent system of early childhood services that will meet the needs of all our children and parents. Without answering these questions, there can be no vision, a critical ingredient of policy and practice.

    We have observed this sad state of national affairs over the last 25 years, while at the same time being involved in initiatives and developments in this country and abroad which have shown what could be done, given sustained political commitment and understanding. We have been driven to write this book by a combination of frustration, concern and hope. Frustration, because of a failure of vision and action, brought home vividly by the quotation at the beginning of this preface – written 20 years ago but still applicable today. Concern, because we fear that the situation in Britain may soon reach a point of no return. Hope, because we know what is possible, from what we have seen in this country and abroad; and because we are aware that many of our ideas are also shared by others (for example, Pugh, 1994).

    This book is a contribution to the development of debate about ends, means and values in early childhood services. We offer a vision of a comprehensive, integrated and coherent early childhood service for children from 0 to 6, which would be the first stage of the education system but equally committed to meeting other needs of children and parents including care, socialisation and support. We also offer specific proposals for making this vision a reality, in the course of which we have tried to grasp firmly some of the most painful nettles. We suggest that the debate about ends and means must be accompanied by a debate about values, not just what values we wish to adopt or reject but the priority we attach to different values.

    Why Have We Called the Book Transforming Nursery Education?

    Nursery education is one of the main services we have for young children and it has many good and enduring features; it is the most widespread, well-known and respected publicly funded early years service. But we think that nursery education as it is presently understood and delivered is inadequate. It is a limited service, part-time, short-term and for a narrow age range of children, predicated on a view of mothers at home and available to look after their children; and whose main task is to prepare and funnel children into primary school. To state this is not to denigrate what currently exists, but to begin the process of examining how nursery education might develop.

    We suggest that given the fundamental changes in social context and the direction of recent theoretical perspectives, which we explore in later chapters, it would be sensible to rethink nursery education – in terms of who it is for, how long it is available, and the prominence of curricular initiatives and children's learning as its central goal.

    But the need for development and transformation goes beyond nursery education. It is not only nursery education which is inappropriate. We think most forms of services have major shortcomings. It is one of our central contentions that the legacy of years of neglect is a large amount of service provision that is ill-suited to provide the type of comprehensive, multifunctional and responsive early childhood service we envision. Yet when public, political and media attention pays one of its fleeting visits to early childhood services, the discussion assumes more of the same. As well as nursery education there are hundreds of private nurseries geared to the need of employed parents for care, but which often ignore children's need for education or the need to provide a community resource. Children with high levels of social need are segregated into yet another system of services – ‘day care’ organised by social services departments – and are also often excluded from education. Other places are provided by playgroups which offer a meagrely resourced part-time service dependent on cheap female labour; or by childminders who are also poorly resourced and often ill-trained and ill-paid.

    But things do not have to be like this. The services we have in Britain today are not inevitable. They are not the consequence of regular and reflective review. There is no intrinsic reason why ‘nursery education’ should be equated with classes tacked on to primary schools in which, if lucky, children will spend a few hours a week during less than a year of early childhood. The best features of today's ‘nursery education’ – and some of the practice is undoubtedly good – could be applied in a new context. A transformed nursery education could be at the centre of a new comprehensive, integrated and coherent early years service.

    There is a role for privately managed services, parent and community-run services and school-based services in the system of early childhood services that we propose. But the system requires transformation of what we have, not more of the same; it requires clear direction to be given to service development, not leaving development to the free play of market forces. It requires recognition that services are social and cultural institutions, not mere purveyors of services to private consumers. It requires a new, broader view of ‘nursery education’, which might become the generic name for the 0 to 6 early childhood service we propose, an umbrella title spanning a range of community-based services, all capable of meeting a variety of needs including care, socialisation, support and learning.

    The Plan of the Book

    Transforming Nursery Education begins and ends with our vision of a comprehensive, integrated and coherent early childhood service. We start with a chapter setting out this vision, exploring the principles that would be necessary to provide a service system capable of delivering high quality, flexible and multi-functional services to children from 0 to 6 years and their parents. We end it with a chapter on how this vision might be fulfilled, letting our imagination run riot and offering three examples of services in the year 2000 – fictitious examples, but based on projects that we have come across or which have been sent to us.

    In between we offer a critique of what is already available, from a number of different perspectives. We look at evidence of what parents want which, we argue, is well in tune with our vision. We show what the current plethora of services means in terms of what is actually on offer to children and parents in one local community. We look at the staff who work in the current services, and at the poor deal most get in terms of training, pay and conditions. We look at the history of nursery education, a perspective which helps explain how we have got to be where we are today, as well as at contemporary practices in nursery education. We emphasise that from both these perspectives, historical and contemporary, there is more than one way to conceptualise and deliver nursery education.

    We explore initiatives in Britain, and services in two European countries, where our vision of a comprehensive, integrated and coherent early childhood service has already partly or wholly been translated into practice. We consider the costs, benefits and funding of such a comprehensive, integrated and coherent early childhood service and make some specific policy suggestions about the steps which should be taken at national level in the UK to achieve this service. It is here in particular that we have had to grasp nettles by putting forward our conclusions about some long-running and contentious issues such as staffing and financing.

    We have tried to make the book lively and down to earth, using examples to illustrate our points. Where positive examples are given, and we have had permission, we have used real and identifiable cases. Where the examples are more negative, we have been careful to disguise them. Some of the examples are real cases. In other instances we have composited cases drawing from several examples known to us. We hope that in doing so we have been able to mirror the ‘real world’ in representing the dilemmas that parents, workers, politicians and other stakeholders commonly face in addressing and trying to resolve the complex issues of early childhood services.


    We would like to thank Mary Hart, Maureen Leck, Margaret Orchard and Robin Duckett for their help with preparing Chapters 8 and 12. We are also very grateful to a number of colleagues for their comments on earlier drafts, including Angela Hobsbaum, Sally Holtermann, Gill Haynes, Susan McQuail, Sue Owen, Richard Stainton and Margy Whalley. They did not agree with all of our views and conclusions, and as authors we take complete responsibility for the contents of the book, including any mistakes it contains. Finally, our thanks are due to Loveday Penn and Clemency Penn for their help in preparing the text.

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