Nursery World: Analysis: Government signals end to target culture

Analysis: Government signals end to target culture. Nursery World, 9 July 2009.
Are the targets and measurements that the Government appears to be dropping going to be replaced by what the early years sector wants or needs? Mary Evans asks the experts.

Labour is abandoning the Blairite mechanism of dictating the delivery of public services through setting and monitoring targets, and instead is introducing a new range of legal rights and entitlements.

Less than a month after the Prime Minister’s tenure in Downing Street was looking very shaky, with a series of ministerial resignations and a dismal showing in the Council and European Elections, he launched the document Building Britain’s Future.

This major policy initiative signals the start of Gordon Brown’s campaign to reassert his authority over his fractious party in preparation for the forthcoming general election campaign.

However, the froth of hype and spin that accompanied the policy launch failed to disguise the enormity of the financial crisis facing the country. Indeed, it prompted speculation that the rhetoric about shifting power from Whitehall to the people was a way of devolving blame for the inevitable cuts in public services to local authorities and health trusts, and away from central Government.

The speed with which Building Britain’s Future and the schools’ White Paper, Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future: Building a 21st Century Schools System, were launched also smacked less of a coherent and planned policy shift and more of a rushed job to grab the political initiative.

For as early years consultant and president of TACTYC Wendy Scott commented, ‘One wonders how Ed Balls had the time to think it all up.’

Guaranteed childcare

The White Paper is focused on primary and secondary schools, with passing implicit and explicit references to the early years, which meant that some days after its publication there was still confusion about what impact the document and the abandonment of targets would have on the early years sector.

Early years associations voiced concern about the pupil guarantee in the White Paper that by next September every primary school pupil should have access to childcare.

‘It is absolutely key that schools work with local provision to deliver this,’ says Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association. ‘They have the expertise and experience to provide the right sort of environment, especially when some older children using childcare might have already spent a full day at school.

‘NDNA is also concerned that some schools, especially those with nurseries attached, may expand their childcare offer to younger children as part of this. We question whether this is a suitable environment for very young children. This move would also have a negative impact on the sustainability of local settings.’

Andrew Fletcher, joint chief executive of the National Childminding Association, says, ‘Registered childminders have provided wraparound childcare for many years working with local schools, delivering and collecting children on behalf of their parents, providing professional care and support for the children in the childminders’ homes. Yet many schools still do not consider using registered childminders when developing their extended services. This is a situation that must change if a full range of options is to be available to parents.

‘When registered childminders work with extended schools, parents have a choice of where to send their child after the normal school day finishes. A home environment is a choice that many parents feel is more appropriate for their child before school and after the school day ends.’

Quality essential

But what about the overall thrust of the White Paper? ‘There are lots of things in this White Paper that are positives and will drive up quality,’ says Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education. ‘The frustration for me is in not seeing the same effort translated to the early years. The document is pretty light in terms of the early years. There are a couple of mentions for the early years and that is about it.

‘But all the research shows that investment in the early years brings huge dividends. So much research shows if you haven’t got it right by the time the child starts primary school, then so much remedial work is needed.’

However, the document reiterates the Government’s commitment to closing the gap between the nation’s most disadvantaged children and the rest. This, as Wendy Scott says, can only be achieved with the provision of high-quality early years settings.

She adds, ‘It is hopeful, promising and encouraging that the Government is moving away from targets towards entitlements and guarantees. But one does wonder where the funding is coming from.’

Early years consultant Margaret Edgington is less convinced about the removal of targets. ‘I am not actually sure that much will change,’ she says. ‘I would hope all that control from the top down would go, but am not terribly optimistic.’

She points out that while the White Paper expects primary schools to continue with the literacy and numeracy hours, they were not a statutory requirement anyway.

Measure and monitor

The hope of early years and education leaders was that the abandonment of targets would mean an end to the very prescriptive central control on practitioners and teachers and, in early years specifically, an end to the EYFS outcomes duty.

However, the new education entitlements, such as the right to one-to-one tuition for children falling behind in English and maths, implies there will be a some sort of continuing system of measuring and monitoring.

‘I am not sure if targets per se will disappear,’ says John Thorn, head of early years and childcare services at Nottinghamshire County Council. ‘Or whether the micro-management of how we all work to achieve those targets will go.

‘The point I have often made to the DCSF is that their general policy directions are often spot-on, but then they ruin them by not consulting with people on the ground about how they might be implemented, or they go ahead with rigid civil servant-invented delivery plans, so we end up spending a lot of energy in trying to make what we think is best for our local circumstances fit into the DCSF delivery model.’

Mr Thorn argues that measuring and monitoring should continue, but without the ‘random target-driven approach to progress’.

He adds, ‘The problem for the measurement of the EYFS outcomes is that targets were set, based on a desire by the DCSF to make step changes in outcomes. These were effectively random targets, because they were not based on any analysis of the previous achievement “curve”. We were not being challenged to “turn the curve” in a potentially possible way, so much as to hit a target that, aggregated with others, would enable the Government to say they have hit an impressive national one. Thus, the national target was announced without reference to local possibilities.’

Ms Edgington is fiercely opposed to targets. ‘If they are getting rid of all the targets in schools, then they should be getting rid of the early years outcomes,’ she says. ‘I don’t think there should be any targets for four- to five-year-olds.’

However, Mr Thorn thinks there have been ‘some tremendously helpful financial initiatives linked to the EYFS outcomes, especially around speech and language and literacy development.

‘I would be a bit fearful that without the targets we might, in times of financial difficulty, lose these monies and initiatives.’

All settings the same

Ms Edgington argues that quality of provision is already eroded. ‘The language of these (Government) documents is very important,’ she says. ‘If you look at every Government document in the last few years, you will notice they often now talk about childcare rather than early education.

‘I am very unhappy at the trend of describing all settings as offering nursery education, as if what is offered in maintained nurseries schools is the same as all other settings. It is not. More nursery schools get graded by Ofsted as outstanding than any other type of provision. I am worried that they are vulnerable. A huge number have closed and I worry that more will go if all provisions are classed as being the same and nursery schools are seen as the expensive option.

‘They are our best-practice model. If they go, where are the inspirational leaders going to come from?’

There is scope in the White Paper for nursery school head teachers to continue to inspire the sector and spread best practice, says Wendy Scott, if the document’s aspirations for inspirational head teachers to work as executive heads is extended to include the head teachers of nursery schools.

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