Policy in Action 23 April 2024

Policy in Action 23 April 2024

The Fawcett Society in the United Kingdom has just published Transforming Early Childhood Education and Care: Sharing International Learning Part 2. This report is part 2 of a project which examines five other countries and territories, all of which have undergone significant reforms to their Early Years systems and considers them in relation to the system in England. The report provides a blueprint for an Early Years system which is not only fit for purpose but fit for the future. You can read our analysis of Part 1 in a previous edition of Policy in Focus.

The Fawcett Society
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The Fawcett Society sees high quality Early Years provision as part of England’s critical social infrastructure. Since the Fawcett Society published its last study on Early Years in 2021, there has been increasing consensus that the UK system needs substantial reform. The Society advocates for universal, free, inclusive, high quality Early Years, and this study explores how this can be achieved.

Ireland in the research
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The report notes that Ireland’s journey of transformation is of special interest to England and indeed the UK, due to our proximity, similarity of context, culture and challenges, and the different measures being explored. It focuses on the road Ireland has taken towards Partnership for the Public Good, and outlines policy developments in Ireland since the launch of the First 5 Strategy in 2018. The report highlights that the First 5: Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families was introduced as a long-term strategy for 2021-2028 focusing on access, affordability and quality with reforms including a focus on workforce, funding, childminding and governance.

In November 2021, an Expert Group published its report, proposing 25 recommendations and a new model for funding as outlined in  Partnership for the Public Good, which was accepted by the government here. While the purpose of the Group and the report was to recommend a new funding model and implementation plan, the report notes that the Expert Group also suggested a shift in the understood role of the State in the Early Years system in the context of a heavily marketized and private provider dominated system.

The report considers that there are several aspects of the Group that stand out as possible factors in its success of Partnership for the Public Good that the sector in England can learn from:

  • Institutional set up: Expert interviews conducted during the research identified the make-up, structure and mechanics of the Expert Group as key in enabling creativity and opening up ideas that could be transformational. The Expert Group was made up of experts, civil servants, and international partners who knew that their recommendations would be seriously considered. The Group created their ‘baseline’ together – establishing the values with which they wanted to operate . This meant that there was a shared sense of purpose and commitment to transformation.
  • Research capability: The Group was provided with the resources and ability to commission research including economic modelling, and for a programme of engagement sessions with parents, providers, educators / practitioners, and other stakeholders to be undertaken. This meant that they had a strong evidence base to support their findings and recommendations.
  • Clear terms of reference: the Expert Group was provided with clear terms on what the remit was, what aspects of the system could be changed and what had to stay. This meant that there was clarity on where the focus should lie.
Ten recommendations for reform
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This report outlines Fawcett’s ten-point plan for reform in England, which includes:

  1. Reform of the Early Years system should be placed within a wide transformation strategy and plan with clearly articulated and evidence-based policy objectives which have been developed through stakeholder engagement, evidence gathering and consensus building. The plan should be drawn up by independent experts, working to a clear mandate from government, underpinned by an expectation that their recommendations will be implemented. This group (or similar) should be kept as a standing independent group able to comment on and monitor progress as government implements its plans.
  2. A transformation plan should have a staged approach with a long-term vision for at least 10 years (or two electoral cycles), with short- and medium-term objectives and evaluation built in at every stage.
  3. The plan should have a holistic cross-governmental approach that brings together different policy areas such as workforce and skills, parental leave, public health.
  4. The plan needs to put children and their wellbeing at the front and centre of reforms, based on multidisciplinary evidence of what children need from their early childhood experiences in order to thrive, as well as the economic benefits to the state of early intervention in education.
  5. Government to offer free ‘universal’ hours of Early Years for all children from the end of parental leave until school age; supplement this with demand side funding that ‘tops up’ universal offer to ensure that all children can access Early Years whatever disadvantages they and their families face.
  6. Introduce a comprehensive workforce strategy which includes and makes links between pay, qualifications, training, and staff to child ratios.
  7. Introduce more supply side funding measures conditional on spending on specific objectives within the Early Years plan.
  8. Incorporate a greater level of cultural inclusion and challenging of gender stereotypes into the Early Years curriculum and staff training.
  9. Introduce ringfenced resourcing for local authorities to support Early Years providers to conduct their own continuous quality improvement (in addition to the existing independent inspection system), amid greater parent and child input. For this to take place, local authorities should be provided with ringfencing funding in order to create guidelines and provide training and support to Early Years providers.
  10. Introduce greater levels of ‘market stewardship’, overseen by the Department for Education, to mitigate the risks to quality and sustainability associated with a marketized system.
Conclusion
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The report  by the Fawcett Society is interesting to view from the perspective of a jurisdiction that is beginning a process of reform in their Early Years sector. The conclusions and recommendations reached also provide important reflections, which can be considered as Ireland moves towards a publicly funded model of Early Years and School Age Care. As part of our work, Early Childhood Ireland monitors the implementation of strategies and plans such as First 5 and Partnership for the Public Good. Early Childhood Ireland staff and members sit on a number of forums and groups that monitor and share information on the development and rollout of these plans. You can read more about some of the policy developments that are on our radar for 2024.

If you would like to know more about this report or our policy monitoring work, you can contact us at [email protected].

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