There is a view that the worth of a society may be judged on its treatment of children. Our Early Years’ students at The University of Northampton continually show us their commitment to enhancing the lives of the young children they work with. However, as a nation, England has attracted international criticism: a third of our children live in poverty, one in ten present with mental illness and, currently, six times the number of our children are held in custody than was the case in 1989, the same year the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. Recently, both the United Nations Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that English children’s rights to protection, provision and participation are not what they might be. Yet ironically, contemporary international children’s rights legislation has its roots in England: the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, endorsed by the League of Nations in 1924, was written by Englishwoman Eglantyne Jebb. Nevertheless, an expectation that children should be seen and not heard has remained a theme in England across centuries.
In a context affording children low status, English policy, practice and perspectives have traditionally attributed similar consideration to children’s workers, particularly those who engage with the youngest children, resulting in an Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) workforce characterised by poorly qualified, inadequately paid women. Some of these characteristics persist: in 2011, English ECEC workers are 98% female and are paid an average salary of around £11,500 – less than half the general workforce average salary. However, recent transformation towards a graduate-led workforce has begun to shift England towards attributing higher value to work with babies and young children, as in Finland, where a third of Early Years’ workers have degrees, many at Master’s level. Without a universal pay structure, though, even those English ECEC workers with degree level qualifications often find they are paid less than the average national salary, though childcare is more expensive for parents in England than in any other OECD country: on average, a third of net income.
High quality ECEC benefits individuals’ lifetime outcomes and the economy: prolific evidence from fields as diverse as neuroscience and economics indicates that investment in ECEC should be a ‘no-brainer’ for policymakers. A recent English study shows that early years’ workers provide a return to society of between seven to ten times their earnings, in stark contrast to tax accountants who extract £47 for every £1 they contribute to society (Lawlor, Kersley and Steed, 2009). Prior to the global economic downturn of 2008, English government policy seemed committed to developing universally high quality ECEC; enhanced ECEC services and a more highly qualified ECEC workforce had begun to reify through investment. Yet with money now in short supply, funding for English children’s services and workforce training is threatened. This may erode progress made towards securing young children’s rights to protection, provision and participation in England.
Services for England’s youngest children appear to be an easy target for budget cuts: many children’s centres have closed in recent months and the annihilation of Play England’s budget has already negatively affected children’s play. Developing and maintaining high quality ECEC seems expensive prima facie and young children’s voices easily go unheard by policymakers. However, cutting young children’s services now is likely to damage children’s lifetime outcomes and imperil the country’s longer term economy. I hope that my recent appointment to the national executive of TACTYC (Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators) will enable our Early Years’ students to forge stronger links with this widely respected national Early Years’ organisation. My wish is that those links will give our Early Years’ students an enhanced platform from which they can advocate vociferously for their young children, so that the status of English ECEC rises further and the rights of all young children to protection, provision and participation have a better chance of becoming fully realised in England.
- Damian Pickard
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