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Valuing the Cs in early childhood education and care

Recently in government and in the media, there has been a lot of discussion about the high cost of childcare in England. In the light of rising household costs and with a recession looming, this is hardly surprising. But the government solution – to reduce the ratio of how many children an adult can look after in an attempt to lower the price for parents – leads to a misperception about the importance of early years carers when it comes to outcomes for young children.

Early educators are naturally concerned about what proposed changes may mean for them in practice. When the government seems to see early years care as babysitting, it is bad for the sector and bad for children. The sector is already under significant pressure, with serious recruitment and retention problems (with 8 in 10 settings struggling to recruit staff and over one third of respondents considering leaving the sector). In this context, the policy may backfire and damage an already fragile sector.

Many early years practitioners worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic with very little acknowledgement. High numbers have left the sector, having become tired of the low pay and poor status or because they are unable to make the books balance trying to operate in a climate where funding does not cover the real costs of running a childcare business.

Adding to this pressure, there may be another subtle narrative in operation, one that could have further unforeseen and damaging consequences.

By focusing solely on “childcare”, the government is sending a message that undermines early childhood education and care workers. Referring only to ratio reductions in relation to childcare has the net result of downgrading and hiding the importance of early education, casting those who “care for children” as little more than babysitters.

Successive governments have encouraged the workforce to gain higher qualifications to ensure they are delivering quality provision. Ofsted inspections have become more and more rigorous to ensure that there are no missed learning opportunities for our youngest children. Yet the average earnings for early childhood practitioners remains low, with the average salary being £19,000 per annum

This persistence in separatingchildcare” from “education” when official bodies talk about the sector, also suggests a view that education is purely about cognitive function. This line of thought tends to promote more formalised learning which ultimately suggests that early education’s true role is to prepare children for school.

Childcare, on the other hand, has a tendency to be more about the practicalities of looking after young children, changing nappies for example. It often incorporates the social and emotional aspects of child development (which is frequently seen as “the fluffy stuff”). Those within the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) sector know that early education incorporates far more than this narrow view.

Early educators value the importance of play and exploration as the primary method that children learn. They also understand that their role is to support children to develop lifelong learning skills, attitudes and attributes.

Informal learning for young children offers important and vital foundations for life. The early years are a time when positive toileting habits are formed and when children have the opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with food. Children begin to learn skills that will help them form warm, appropriate relationships with peers and others outside their family unit. In addition, pre-reading and writing skills are developed, while attitudes to numbers, problem solving, books and a curiosity in the world are kindled. This is early education at its best, digging and building strong foundations for children’s lives.

"To separate care and education seems, at best, ignorant and, at worst, nonsensical. Most early educators have always known, from experience, the importance of the social and emotional aspects of learning. This has been emphasised since the pandemic."

According to well-established knowledge about attachment, we know that children tend to thrive when they have positive caring relationships and feel safe. Parents also need to feel confident in the quality of care their child receives.

There are significant moves in the sector to develop ways of working that openly and honestly take on board ideas about introducing professional love within practice. Although attachment theory has its limits, the continuing presence of the key person system in ECEC settings is testament to the enduring belief that children require a secure base to flourish and learn. However, should government plans to reduce the ratios be introduced, this will inevitably reduce opportunities for positive interactions and dilute the value of the key person relationship.

We know that words matter and how things are described is important because words portray nuances of meaning. So we need the government to reframe its approach.

There is growing evidence that the social-emotional aspects of learning, which are traditionally linked to childcare, are significant for children’s long-term attainment. Describing the sector as Early Childhood Education and Care (rather than other options that tend to omit care) incorporates the important philosophy that care cannot and should not be separated from education AND that children's development is linked to lifelong learning skills, attitudes and attributes rather than a rather narrow “school readiness” agenda.

Making a change to the way the sector is described, reconsidering changes to existing ratios and considering long-term investment in the sector, would signal a shift in attitude and would offer due respect for the work of early educators. These are the people who could be the key to improving outcomes to the young children from poorer backgrounds.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. For more information, view our full statement on external contributors.


Donna Gaywood

Donna Gaywood

Donna Gaywood

Resident, A Fairer Start

Donna joined Nesta as a resident early years consultant for the fairer start team.

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