Improving Life Chances – My Reflections   Leave a comment

The title of this blog has been ‘borrowed’ from the Early Education conference that I attended on Friday 14th October 2016.

I have included a link to the conference page and hope it continues to work despite the conference now having taken place

I must make it very clear that these are my personal reflections from the conference and therefore my opinion – it is possible – in fact likely  – that other people attending will have had different reflections and opinion.

I also need to explain that I was a tad tired after a busy few days – and a very early start to the day, and so I may have missed bits or not recalled fully. So it would be lovely to hear or read the views of others who attended.

The preamble                                                                                                                                              

 I have been a member of Early Education for a number of years now, and indeed within this blog site are a number of posts about events organised by Early Education that I have attended in the past.

I have always been made to feel very welcome despite the fact that as a childminder and now a retired childminder, I do not fit the usual criteria of members.

For those of you who do not know, historically Early Education has been the membership organisation for  Maintained Nursery Schools (and it is important to remember that when reading this blog) however these days they welcome all members including PVI settings, trainers, consultants and all those who are interested in supporting high quality early years education.

Just to be sure those reading this blog have a basic knowledge about maintained nursery schools – these are not the nursery classes within Primary schools. They are independent nursery schools with their own Headteacher, and historically have been funded differently to other early years settings and indeed nursery classes within schools.

My Reflections                                                                                                                                            

 I arrived a bit late due to the time of my train and getting a bit lost on the walk from station to venue, so I missed the arrival refreshments and the first bit of Beatrice Merrick’s welcome and introduction. For those of you who don’t know, Beatrice is Early Educations CEO.

The first speaker was Helen Stephenson, Director, Early Years, Child Poverty and Children’s Services Strategy, Department for Education. I was really interested to hear what Helen had to say about the subject of her talk ‘The Government’s commitment to early education: an update on 30 hours delivery, maintaining quality, and improving access for the most disadvantaged children’  because as regular readers will know, I do not agree with a lot of the Governments current education policy.

First, I have to say that I found Helen to be an excellent speaker who came across as genuinely wanting to improve children’s outcomes. She also was honest about the restrictions of budget cuts, delays in implementing policy and in setting up  consultations. She also explained the delays and changes in the direction of Government policy due to the changes in Government and Government ministers. She said that we are now entering a new era –  Ministers are listening  and really do want to get it right.

Of course Helen’s job is to implement Government policy and to be positive about it – so I can’t say if Helen is putting a positive ‘spin’ on things or if it is a real change. Time will tell, but certainly from my personal conclusions about what Helen said – I would not be surprised if there were going to be some changes – of course things could get worse as well as improve – but I am optimistic about some things.

Helen spoke about all the points in the title of her talk – and at some length, but I am only going to pick up on the points that struck a cord with me.

First around the difference in funding rates for Maintained Nursery Schools – there is a pot of money available to continue funding Maintained Nursery schools at the current rate – for at LEAST two years. It was the word LEAST that jumped up and hit me – does this mean that a substantial difference in funding rates will continue for more than two years?

Helen did however say that the historical system was unfair and it needed to be fair to all settings. So does this mean that the Government are looking at all funding rates and will be increasing PVI settings rates so they are inline or at least nearer to the rate paid to Maintained Nursery Schools?

Maybe I am being a little to optimistic – but other aspects of Helen’s talk have made me think.

I must make it clear  that I  do not think Maintained Nursery Schools should have a huge cut in the funding rates – but I do think PVI settings including childminders need an increase and that the system needs to be fair and sustainable  so that EVERY CHILD can access high quality early education. Maybe giving everyone around £5 – £6 per hour would be fairer? (In a previous blog my own mini research showed that PVI settings would be happier – not delighted but happier- with a rate of £5 per hour, per child)

I do have an issue with government calculations because the amount being reduced from Maintained Nursery Schools does not seem to being used to increase the rate for others – this also applies to  the cuts some PVI settings are seeing in the funding rate calculators. It appears to me that the Government are using these savings to help cover the cost of an ill thought out election promise.

Helen spoke a lot about the 30 hours  – and I don’t know if it was an intended message, a subconscious message  – or just me reading into things and hearing a message that I wanted to hear!

So what did I hear?

Well, I heard Helen mention:

  • That she did not want the roll out of the 30 hours to impact on the 15 hours or the two year funding
  • That if could not offer the 30 hours – stick to offering the 15 hours
  • It is the 15 hours that makes a difference (reference to research given)
  • That 30 hours will not increase outcomes – at least not by much

And the 15 hours being crucial was mentioned several times

So is the Government reflecting?

Will we see a change to policy around the 30 hours?

Another part of the ‘puzzle’ was Helen talking about Maintained Nursery School looking into wrap around care, so they provided the 15 hours and a PVI setting provided any additional hours required by the parents. What I did not hear her say was ‘ additional 15 hours funding’ – but maybe my attention had wandered at this point or I just did not hear it (there were a few issues around the sound system). I had my hand up to ask questions but I was not picked and so my question remained unanswered. However I was thinking – are the Government going to follow through with 30 hours or are they thinking that the additional 15 hours which they have always labelled as ‘childcare’ do not need to be delivered by the Maintained Nursery Schools, but could be offered by ‘anyone’?

Are they in fact having a rethink?

Are they thinking that if we pay Maintained Nursery Schools a higher amount we don’t want to reduce the number of children able to access these settings by ‘allowing’ Maintained Nursery Schools to offer ‘childcare’ as well, and which could be provided by the PVI sector at a lower funded rate?

I don’t know -these are just questions that were going through my mind – Who does actually know what the Government is thinking?

Of course lots of other thoughts rushed through my mind – and I have to say some of those thoughts were rather depressing.

However, rather than express those thoughts, I will wait until I have more information before I say anything, and before  I lose the will to keep trying to engage with the Government, to try and get them to listen, to discuss, to spend Government money wisely.

Not that they are engaging with me directly at the moment.

Just one other point about the 30 hours – another speaker (who arrived mid way through the day) asked what Helen had said about the 30 hours and if she had said if going ahead. Of course the reply was Yes – going ahead.

The person then said ‘Oh I had heard the Secretary of State was still not decided. Of course I have no idea if this was based on fact, was first hand or third hand information, just an opinion or idea, or just wishful thinking. However, it goes to show that people are still thinking and wondering if the 30 hour roll out will go ahead, if details have or will change, if will be postponed or even scrapped.

Before anyone gets too hopeful, I do have to point out that Helen also spoke very positively about the pilots and the things they were learning from them (although of course that could also be taken to mean that learning  things need to change).

Helen asked people to get in touch if they had any ideas how to support families with two years olds with home learning – I am afraid I despair – How about Health Visitors, Children’s Centre’s – and Childminders?

The next speaker was Naomi Eisenstadt, University of Oxford and Independent Adviser on Poverty  and Inequality to the Scottish Government and she was speaking about ‘The challenges of an anti-poverty agenda’

I was really interested in Naomi’s speech – I did not agree with everything she said BUT her main message about the impact of poverty of children and families and therefore on the outcomes for children, I totally agreed with. So a few points from my memory

  • People need enough money to live on – money does not buy happiness but not having enough can lead to mental health issues in adults and impact on children
  • The gap between the have and have nots is getting bigger
  • Living in poverty does not mean children will have poor outcomes, many living in poverty do really well.
  • There are many other issues that impact on children – such as parenting skills, housing, general health from poor diet and so on.
  • High quality early years education is important but so is the standard of Primary school and secondary school education, and parents level of education and life experiences (how can you inspire your child to do well at school if you have never been to university or did not do well at school yourself?).

There was more but those are the things that stuck in my mind (as usual hardly any notes). Naomi had charts and graphs and referred to research but those who know me well,  know my opinion about the limits to research – so I did not take much notice. However the personal  ‘stories’ based on real life and observations that Naomi told did have an impact on  me – and I thought she is right. Parents living in poverty do worry, do want the best for their children but often have to make difficult choices – and some may appear selfish to those of us who do not live in extreme poverty  (so we might need more money but we can manage on what we have) as an example why do those in poverty often still smoke despite the high cost of cigarettes? (My thoughts are, it is the way they cope, they way they hold themselves together because they have very little else in their lives. They know it is bad for them – but then again, so is hitting your children due to stress, or drinking to extreme and not waking to feed the baby, or taking drugs and ending up in prison. Yes extremes and I know some do all these things – but not all. Some are desperately trying to do their best)

I am going to sidetrack here – just briefly to give you an example of the difference just a bit more money can have.

Today when we returned from doing some food shopping, we could not get into our own house because when we locked the door – unknown to us the lock had broke. In our case we had a back door we could open, my husband went and brought a new lock (under £30) and had the skills and tools to fit the new lock himself.

Now imagine the same thing happening to a family living in poverty, but doing the best they can. First it is unlikely they have a back door (if a flat) – or  they can’t get to it (if a terraced house). So how do they get in? What if it is raining or the children need lunch? It is unlikely that they can buy a new lock, or that they have the skills or permission from a landlord to do this sort of repair.

So they have to wait until the landlord gets round to fixing it. Meanwhile the parents stress about keeping the children safe, worry about drunks entering the house and hurting them, about people taking their stuff. So they all stay in, the children don’t go to school or nursery, they push a chair against the door …. and on and on (leave it to your imagination what might happen) – all because they do not £30 to spare / in rented accommodation and can not afford to call out a tradesman to do the job to the landlords specification (which would cost a lot more than £30)

I can relate to this and the stress that not having enough money can cause – as a young mum, a health visitor told me I needed to buy some one way liners for my first born’s  terry nappies – they were only a £1 or so – but I did not have the money – the guilt was unbearable and I cried bucket loads. I had to wait until next pay day because I had spent that weeks money. I also know about not having enough money to pay an unexpectedly high electric bill and the stress that causes (this was another example Naomi used)

I am not sure those in Government (even those like Caroline Dinenage who had a fairly ‘average’ childhood ) can relate to this. How can the Government say the living wage needs to rise to £7 and then to £9 per hour, when some are having to manage on a lot less than this.

And getting back to the subject matter – how can the Government say one child can benefit from a setting that receives two or three times more funding than another setting in the same area. Yes, I know Maintained Nursery Schools are often in areas of disadvantage – but not all the children get a place – so how is that fair? How can those other settings, including childminders in areas of disadvantage provide the high quality early education needed, when they get less funding, have huge issues to overcome with buildings, attracting staff and so on.

As I have said this is not a anti Maintained Nursery School point of view – all settings need the higher rates of funding – at least  some mid point level between that which PVI settings and Maintained Nursery School get. If EVERY CHILD MATTERS then funding needs to be fair and sustainable for ALL settings.

Naomi raised the importance of the impact of Home Learning – and I thought back to the question from Helen and my ‘in my head’ answer.

So getting back to the Early Education conference, the next speaker was Professor Ted Melhuish, University of Oxford speaking on ‘Policy for the future welfare of nations: lessons from research’ .

Ted had lots of information and graphs based on research – most of it went over my head I’m afraid – and I will be honest it is because it is based on data from several years ago – and these days there are a lot more Outstanding and Good PVI settings, so although I am sure high quality early education does make a difference, we need more research and practise based observation to demonstrate the difference PVI settings are making – and not just at school entry point but throughout the education system.

We also need information about children who stay at home with parents, children who are home educated, children who attend a childminding setting, or spend a lot of time with grandparents. We also need to consider those children who access a range of settings in a week. I think the information would be very interesting. Personally I can’t help feeling that disadvantaged children will do well in most good or outstanding settings (including Maintained Nursery Schools) but that funded two year olds will do best in a childminding setting due to the lower number of children, increased social opportunities including language opportunities. (But I have said this many times before).

The next  speaker  (after a welcome refreshment break) was Professor Kathy Sylva, University of Oxford who was speaking about ‘Children’s Centres: lessons from the Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England’. Kathy also had graphs and facts which I don’t remember, however I found Kathy’s talk interesting and two points in particular

  • Evaluations show Children’s Centres had not had as much impact as expected – but had had a small positive impact
  • Much of the reason for lower than expected outcomes was due to budget cuts, and the parents who needed services often choosing not to access them or if they did not accessing them regularly.

As someone who had been involved with Children’s Centres in their early days – I can confirm that the potential was never fully used and indeed budget cuts have a lot to answer for. The potential was there.

Kathy also mention the importance of home learning and the impact and how it could be supported through Children’s Centre’s. (Provided not been closed)

The final session before lunch was by Bernadette Duffy, Head of the Thomas Coram Centre on the subject of ‘Delivering integrated services – how to make it work’. It was a shock to me that the Thomas Coram Centre is no longer a Children’s Centre – but it was also amazing how they had managed to retain many of the services by clever budgeting, using volunteers and asking for favours!

Of course more was said but by now I was really hungry and so not paying full attention, as breakfast had been at 4.20am, I had missed the arrival refreshments, and coffee break was just a drink – not even a biscuit.

Lunch was OK but I could not go back for seconds (as usual did not fill my plate so everyone had a choice) due to the fact that as members I (we) had to eat lunch while attending the AGM. Personally this did not work for me, as I needed to move around not sit still again, and I missed the important networking which is one of the reasons I attend this sort of events.

After the AGM we had to go straight back to the conference room for a panel discussion with Dr Eva Lloyd, University of East London, Alex Magloire, Ofsted, Dr Kirsten Asmussen, Early Intervention Foundation. This was quite interesting and we had opportunity to discuss briefly with those sat near to us. It was during the question and answer bit, that I raised the subject of childminders – in particular working in partnership – and all learning from each other rather than school leading (or should I say – telling PVI what to do and how to it). I also raised the issue of sufficient funding, childminders professionalism and more.

My comments went down well and Tony Bertram who was facilitating this session said I had made my point well. He also commented to me personally before I left about the importance of childminders. Two other people also came up to me and said how pleased they were that I raised the issue of childminders.

It was then time to go, I chatted with a few colleagues as we left, and with one colleague on the way to the station. I then had a long wait until my train, finally getting home at 21.30.

It had been a very long day, and worth it for the speakers at the conference. Lack of biscuits at break, lack of opportunities to network over lunch – and the cost of attending (even with the early bird discount and member discount) had been disappointing.

Being honest – if the cost remains the same, or increases, this sadly will have been my last Early Education conference, as the total cost of the day had been almost £180 and without any funding and very little personal income, this sort of expense will not possible in the future.

For those with funding, or who are able to attend in their work hours, and claim travel expenses, it is good value – but for those who have to take a day off without pay and /or pay for their own attendance and travel – it is a lot of money to find.




Posted October 15, 2016 by psw260259 in My thoughts on current childcare issues

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