Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 65 - 69)




  65. I welcome Professor Helen Penn from the University of East London. I have been intimidated by your CV, which is amazing, but I am just going to say for the Committee that Helen Penn is Professor of Early Childhood at the University of East London, and her main research interests include national and international policies concerning education and care services for young children, theoretical issues concerning child development, particularly cross-cultural and comparative research literature and globalisation and its impact on childhood. We have already had some written comments on our report which the Committee know about but which we will ignore for the moment because no one else out there does. You have had the benefit of hearing a lot of interesting evidence and very diverse evidence this morning. What do you feel about the area we inquired into after listening to all these voices this morning?

  (Professor Penn) I am very impressed by the grasp of the Committee of the detail with which you have addressed these issues but my perspective is an over-view perspective, a policy perspective. The question I would ask is, is what is going on in the UK a good system for children, and my answer would be no. I am not the only person of course to have said this, there has been a recent review by the OECD which has also been somewhat critical of UK policy. I do not know how much detail you want me to go into.

  Chairman: Tell us what is wrong with it and how we get it right.

Valerie Davey

  66. In quarter of an hour!

  (Professor Penn) As the OECD suggests the very first thing is to have an integrated and coherent policy. At the moment we have two policies, a policy about nursery education entitlement and another policy called the child care strategy, and they run in tandem for all that the civil servants talk to one another. I think there needs to be a much more fundamental re-think about what is available for young children. I think also the services for young children, as a number of people here today have commented, are incredibly fragmented. Basically we have a market system for young children which in a number of other countries would be quite unacceptable. The reason we have such low pay in the sector is because most of the child care sector is privatised and it follows the market logic rather than any logic of entitlements of workers. It is a very, very fragmented system, and the Government instead of calling it, as it used to, "the great under-5s muddle", now calls it, "encouraging diversity of choice", but it is basically the same thing. There is an incredible diversity and this diversity and competitiveness actually, it seems to me, does harm to parents and children. If I can give you a very practical example, when I looked for child care 20 years ago I found it rather difficult but I found someone for my daughter, my daughter now grown up and looking for child care has much more difficulty in the same area than I had. So I do not think things have got any better unless you have a lot of money and can afford child care. The other point I would like to make is about child poverty. Child poverty in this country is incredibly high, it is very, very bad, as UNICEF pointed out, and apart from America we have the highest level of child poverty in the developed world. To expect Early Years schemes to carry the burden of addressing this poverty is a nonsense. Sure Start may be a very good scheme but it is hopelessly over-sold and I am sure research will show that over time. Child poverty is more fundamental than having nice chats between professionals. If I were to suggest what could be done, first of all, an integrated policy. Secondly, I think we should have a basic right to provision which is far greater than the entitlement that currently exists. The OECD pointed out that nursery entitlement is incredibly brief, it is only for one year and it is only for a couple of hours a day and only for school terms, and we could look again at nursery entitlement and think about Early Years entitlements, which is for children aged 0 to 5 for a certain period in the day, and abandon national nursery entitlement.

  67. That would key into the suggestion Rosemary made earlier.
  (Professor Penn) Probably yes. The third thing is that we do have the fundamentals of a good system in place, which is the nursery schools. Nursery schools seem to me to have been incredibly neglected by this Government. I know they are trying to redress the balance now with little dribbles of funding, but nursery schools are located for the most part in poor communities, they offer a service with quite well-qualified people, they usually are in premises and certainly in grand spaces which are very good for children, and they could have formed the basis of expansion but in a competitive market system they have just got ignored, and children are either being put into school or the entitlement to nursery schools has shrunk. They are just under-used. There is this fantastic asset not being used and in the meantime the Government is setting up alternative systems through this extraordinary plethora of funding bids. So, to summarise, proper policy; address child poverty in a number of ways and do not over-do the Early Years component of it; do something about nursery schools and do something about funding. Even the Cabinet Performance and Innovation Unit has criticised the way in which short-term funding on a bidding basis has been made available to local communities and said it is counterproductive.

Valerie Davey

  68. First of all, I would like to say thank you because I did not expect at this stage to meet somebody who was a mainstay of the Strathclyde system which many of us as local government councillors held up as being the ideal.
  (Professor Penn) It was a good try!

  69. It was a good try. You brought together education and social services in a way which I think was pioneering at that stage, and many of us who were struggling in local authorities, on education committees, used Strathclyde to knock officers' heads with, and said to them, "It can be done, Strathclyde have done it, what about it", so a huge thank you for that. Then I think a word of caution. I feel that what you are saying is right but if you say it in, dare I say, such a negative way we are not going to make the progress forward we simply have to at this very important crossroads in child care and in nursery education. I agree with you, because of my background too, that the nursery schools are fundamental and that that good practice and that resource centre in many of our poorer communities has been the catalyst for a lot of good things, but I think the credit that others deserve for getting money into families and for getting funding through must also be acknowledged. It is this broad base so it cannot all be done in one aspect. Child poverty is crucial. The care which children then get at every stage, particularly in poor communities—it is not just poor families, as you rightly say it is poor communities—is fundamental. So really I am saying to you, how can you build on your personal experience, your convictions, in a way which will be listened to, because if you knock everything you will not be listened to?
  (Professor Penn) Like the OECD, to whom I have been an adviser, I do think there has been a remarkable effort by this Government to redress the balance of 20 years' neglect, so I would not want to deny that for one minute. But I do think that the problems are fairly fundamental and unless they are addressed in a more radical way they will just go on along the same tracks. I do not think now, trying to be involved in helping to develop some of these reforms, after four years of these reforms are enough or radical enough to provide the care and education we all say we want.

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