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Penny Tassoni, the new president of PACEY, faces a tough challenge. She has been picked to lead the organisation, formerly known as the NCMA (National Childminding Association), after it was rebranded and expanded to represent nurseries and nannies as well as childminders.
There have been rumblings of discontent from childminders over the new organisation now called the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY). Some childminders are unhappy that they no longer have anyone specifically protecting childminders’ interests, with one childminder on a forum calling it “a hugely retrograde step” saying: “Focused is good, scattergun is bad”.
However, news that Ms Tassoni, had been chosen as the new president has been welcomed. Another childminder discussing the changes on a forum said: “I see Penny Tassoni is the new president. I like her a lot: she's one of the few early years authors that makes an effort to include childminders. So I'm on the fence at the moment.”
Ms Tassoni is keen to reassure childminders that their interests will still be protected. She says: “I support every part of the sector and I am very aware that some childminders were very attached to having their own organisation. When I was asked to be president I asked them how we will continue to support childminders. I wouldn’t have taken on the role if I hadn’t felt that would happen.”
She believes it is “always difficult for members when an organisation changes” and adds: “I hope that childminders recognise it is still an organisation for them and I hope people working in nurseries and as nannies will feel it is an organisation for them to come to as well. It is potentially going to be very exciting as people from various areas in the sector will be able to connect and learn from each other and find out there are more commonalities than differences.”
In her view, joining forces with other parts of the sector will make their voices stronger. “Coming together with other parts of the sector will hopefully put a stop to childminders being misunderstood and not recognised for the work they do.”
Penny Tassoni became interested in the childcare sector having trained as a primary school teacher. She is widely known for her training and consultancy work and also for her range of books on issues in the early years such as development and inclusion and the Early Years Foundation Stage. “I was interested in making a difference and especially for children who had not been dealt a lucky hand in life. Writing my books has meant I have met a lot of people and visited a whole range of settings.”
The early years have been very much in the news of late, due to childcare minister Elizabeth Truss, who recently ruffled quite a few feathers in the sector by calling nurseries in the UK “chaotic” where children run around “no sense of purpose”.
Ms Tassoni calls her comments “very inflammatory and very worrying for parents”. She believes voicing these kind of opinions prevents the sector from having constructive debates. “Most people in the sector and Mr and Mrs Public want our children to be happy and to do well and reach our potential. Elizabeth Truss’s comments are very unnecessary and not very helpful.”
Ms Truss has been very vociferous about the French model of early years education, claiming having a more structured system with higher ratios of staff to children such as in France would be more beneficial for children in the UK, than the current approach.
However Ms Tassoni claims the way she is representing the French model is not accurate. “My husband is French and I have visited ecole maternelle and creches and I am concerned about the way it is being portrayed. The official ratio that is being quoted for creches is 1:8 but they are only including qualified staff in that and there are often unqualified staff working with them called auxillaries but they don’t count in the ratios.
“Also they don’t have young two-year-olds at ecole maternelle, they only take rising two-year-olds. In France they don’t start to learn to read or write until they are six or seven. So the idea that in France they do all this structured learning to read and write at a very young age is just not true. In the UK, we are getting children in reception classes in primary schools to read and write much younger than in France. Our expectations of what children should be doing are very different. The representation of the French model is just not accurate. In France, if a child is not ready to read or write, there is not the same level of pressure that there is here. In school, they can repeat the academic year. It is a very different system.”
Ms Tassoni admits she “was disappointed that the Government called its childcare reform report ‘More Great Childcare’ as working with young children is much more than about playing with children and it is not just about caring for children. I would have liked to have seen a title such as ‘More Great Education’”.
She would also like to have seen the new early years teachers having qualified teacher status and having parity with school teachers. “It made me feel disheartened as it wasn’t Cathy Nutbrown’s vision. She did some fantastic consultation and said early years teachers should be specialists in their areas. I feel we have short-changed the profession,” says Ms Tassoni.
Introducing requirements for early years practitioners to have Maths and English GCSE is another proposal in the More Great Childcare report. Ms Tassoni like many, believes qualifications are a good way of raising status of the profession, however she says: “I wouldn’t like to see it being used as a barrier to prevent more mature people getting jobs in childcare. This is a country where Maths teaching is not as strong as in other countries and so this would be quite a barrier. But we should be showing that childcare is a career to aspire to and it is not a default option. It is a sector that requires fast thinking reactive staff. Children change in their needs constantly and it is highly skilled work. But there are plenty of capable people working in childcare and it is a shame if we create barriers.”
She is also very anxious about the new Early Learning Goals which the Government introduced last year, which includes adding, subtracting, doubling and halving numbers and writing simple sentences, for children in Reception at primary school.
“The Government is making Reception in primary school a more pressurized environment. I asked the Department for Education what evidence it had to show that summer-born four-year-olds would be able to produce that level of writing. Many parents are unaware of these new early learning goals which children will be assessed by at the end of Reception. These early learning goals will lead to children being seen as not able when they are just very young.
“The Government needs to use validated research to inform its policies. The research is very clear that children should be learning to read and write later.”
However despite all her concerns, she remains “very optimistic about the future of the childcare sector. Early years practitioners are committed to working with children and that is their prime motivator. People work in this sector because they want to make a difference.”
First job: Chambermaid in the Holiday Inn
Favourite book: ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson
Favourite film: When Pigs have Wings – about a Palestinian fisherman who catches a pig out of the sea and he is left with the dilemma of a pig that is unclean
Favourite piece of music: 'Le Onde' by Einaudi
What is the best present you have received: My daughters gave me a cartoon they had drawn for me for Mother’s Day
Last holiday: Turkey