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The chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association has spoken out in the wake of a drive by the Government to encourage more schools to take two-year-olds.
The Department for Education is currently running a pilot project with 45 schools as they prepare for, and begin to deliver early education for two-year-olds over the academic year 2013/14.
The Government’s plans are supported by Ofsted chair Baroness Sally Morgan, who recently called for more ‘all through’ schools incorporating nursery, primary, secondary and sixth form to help address the gap in development between disadvantaged children and those from better off families.
However to Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), the idea is anathema.
She believes the Government should be utilising the early years settings that are already up and running and have experience in the development of young pre-school children.
“One of the most important things is for the Government to recognise that play is a fundamental part of the early years sector. We don’t agree that the school environment is the right place for a young child,” she says.
Ms Tanuku’s stance is backed by Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, who says: “While pushing two-year-olds into schools may be a very convenient solution to the problem of finding enough places to fulfil the offer, the vast majority of the sector agree that this is simply not an appropriate environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children.”
Last year was a busy year for Ms Tanuku - as head of one of the leading childcare organisations and a voice for the early years sector, which has had to contend with a whole raft of reforms.
Childcare has become the buzzword
Childcare seems to have been the buzzword for the main political parties in 2013 and this year looks set to continue the trend.
Ms Tanuku is “encouraged that the political parties have recognised the importance of childcare in terms of early intervention” but says “the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is”.
She adds: “The politicians need to understand the important role that high quality childcare plays in terms of child development, but also as a business the contribution it makes to the community as a whole.”
Prior to joining NDNA eight years ago, Ms Tanuku ran a regeneration trust and was the first ethnic communities officer for Leeds City Council.
Having worked a lot with SMEs (small and medium enterprises), she has found that “in particular the childcare sector is not fully supported by the different Government departments”.
It seems a glaring omission as it is a huge sector and Ms Tanuku says: “The Government seems to forget how huge it is but this is a £3.6bn sector employing quarter of a million people. Nurseries have to work within a very strict regulatory regime yet they get very little support.
“There is a lack of level playing field in the early years sector. Nurseries are at a distinct disadvantage compared to children’s centres and nursery schools. They have to pay VAT and business rates.
“If the early years is such a fundamental policy for the Government it should bring in zero rates for VAT and help nurseries with business rates. That will help to reduce childcare costs for parents.”
Pay and conditions of early years workforce
Reforms to the sector last year included a proposal to change staff to child ratios, which the Government then did a U-turn on, plus new Early Years Teacher and Early Years Educator qualifications to raise the status of the profession.
Ms Tanuku believes the new qualifications will help to raise the status of the childcare profession but she says “at the same time you need to raise the pay and conditions or you won’t attract those highly qualified individuals into the profession”.
She calls it disappointing that “throughout these reforms no one has mentioned the pay and conditions of the early years workforce. That hasn’t been addressed at all and it is critical that it is. A lot of nurseries would like to pay their staff more but they are not getting enough funding from the local authorities for the free early years entitlement to do this.
“Nurseries need to be able to invest in their staff and the only way they can do this is to secure more funding from the Government for the free childcare hours they offer.
“The people who work in this sector are so passionate about looking after young children. People don’t go into it to make huge amounts of money. They do it because they are passionate about delivering high quality care.”
Ms Tanuku was on the expert panel that came up with the Nutbrown Review recommendations. These called for an increase in the number of qualified teachers with specialist early years knowledge and having level 3 as the minimum qualification standard for the whole workforce.
However like Professor Nutbrown, she was disappointed to find that the Early Years Teachers will not have QTS (qualified teacher status) nor will they follow a PGCE course so they will not have the same status as school teachers.
She also believes there should be a “career path for those who do not have the qualifications but are still great childcare practitioners”.
Ofsted downgrading nurseries
The increase in the downgrading of nurseries by Ofsted last year has been another concern.
Figures from Ofsted at the end of last year showed the number of early years providers rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ increased to seven per cent between September 2012 and August 2013, compared to three per cent in 2011-2012.
Last year also saw the percentage of providers rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ fall from 74 per cent to 67 per cent.
“If a nursery is downgraded from good to satisfactory, some local authorities are saying they will still support them but others are saying they won’t be able to continue to fund them to over the free childcare to disadvantaged two-year-olds. We have had some nurseries downgraded from excellent to satisfactory and we want to know the criteria these judgments are being made on.
“These decisions by Ofsted can make or break a nursery and the impact of the morale of the staff can be horrendous. This is their livelihood.”
NDNA has been working with Ofsted on addressing these issues. It would like Ofsted to address a number of things.
This includes: continuing to talk with and listen to the early years sector; carrying out consistent and quality inspections; communicating a clear and fair policy on concern driven inspections; being transparent in the quality assurance process; allowing five working days for providers’ review before publication of reports; fairness in handling complaints from providers; avoiding routine inspections when managers are on leave and when the law allows, offering paid-for re-inspection.
However despite all that nurseries have had to contend with last year, Ms Tanuku remains optimistic. “The sector is very resilient and strong and committed and we need to carry on working together to ensure we achieve what we want for the very young children.
“Membership of NDNA has grown over the past year by 21 per cent. There are so many challenges for nurseries at the moment and we have upped the training we are delivering to meet the demand. We have also ensured that our training is available both online and in settings on the weekends so all the staff can attend.”
If you want to have your say on whether Early Years Teachers should have Qualified Teacher Status please go to www.daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/37/do-superhero-costumes-toy-weapons-make-children-more-aggressive
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