Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Professor Helen Penn, University of East London (EYF 09)


  Set up and ran the first integrated early years service in the UK (Strathclyde 1986-92).

  Policy expert: adviser to European Childcare Network/OECD/Department of International Development (DFID)/UNICEF/World Bank. Have advised over 20 education ministries/departments on development of early years services, including Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and European and ex-communist countries.

  Current research in UK: OFSTED inspections of early years; current status and viability of nursery schools; Early Years Development and Care Partnerships (with Children's Society); and co-ordinator, EPPI Early Years Review Group (DfEE funded Evidence on Policy and Practice Information and Co-Ordinating Centre, Institute of Education).


  My comments are presented as an overview of policy, rather than as particular comments related to the remit of the committee to explore early learning goals and the role of formal schooling in early years. The committee has been able to highlight some of these policy issues very usefully, in particular the importance of not starting school or an academic curriculum too early; and the unacceptability of allowing childcarers to smack and smoke. But I would still wish to argue that the framework in which early years services are delivered is much more unsatisfactory than the report has been able to acknowledge. I would refer the committee to the OECD Thematic Review Country Note, where some of these policy issues are also raised, and similar concerns have been expressed about the UK.

  Despite the efforts of this government, and the relatively high profile they have given early years, UK policy still seems to have major shortcomings:

    (i)  a failure to develop an integrated and comprehensive approach to early years, which sees it as a separate stage in its own right with its own requirements;

    (ii)  the predominance of the school agenda and its undue influence on early years provision;

    (iii)  the continued fragmentation of early years provision, now given a different "spin" as parental choice and "partnership";

    (iv)  an ad hoc approach to funding of provision;

    (v)  an ad hoc approach to child poverty.

  Some of the effects of these policy shortcomings are:

    —  rapid turnover of children between settings—a child may attend four or five or even more settings before statutory school age, a turnover which would be unacceptable at any other stage of education;

    —  difficulty for parents in maintaining involvement in any early years setting, because the time-span of attendance is usually so short;

    —  the plethora of different kinds of provision, inequitably staffed, funded and housed and the continued lack of real choice for parents particularly for childcare;

    —  competition between various unsatisfactory forms of care and education, rather than more coherent integrated settings;

    —  neglect of maintained nursery schools, arguably the most robust and longstanding UK tradition of early years provision serving the poorest communities;

    —  a fragmented and contradictory OFSTED inspection regime, which uses school-based formulae for maintained early years settings and different inspectors and regimes for non-maintained settings and offers no basis for comparison between them;

    —  a muddled approach to funding of early years provision, based on bidding for short term monies, which results in unsustainability of projects and which the Cabinet Performance and Innovation Unit itself has criticized;

    —  a failure to address child poverty and bring it down to European averages, and an undue weight put on early years initiatives such as Sure Start in solving these issues of structural poverty.

April 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 4 July 2001