The Provision of Child Care Nurseries in the United Kingdom in 2004 Essay

When attempting to measure quality it is essential to consider the needs of the recipients and different stakeholders of nursery provision. This paper will examine the policies and laws set by the government and consider the viewpoints of managers, staff, parents and children.

Quality is a term that describes the essence of something. It is a measure of how well a service achieves its objectives. This essay will discuss quality in terms of outcomes and also examine quality in terms of the processes that have occurred to get to the same place as in the difference between travelling to the same location by bus or by a chauffeur driven limousine.

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Moss (1996) suggests that quality can be defined as an objective and subjective matter. In objective terms, quality can be said to be apparent when certain pre-defined outcomes are achieved. Alternatively, quality can be judged in terms of perceived worth as in customer satisfaction surveys.

Quality is a word that is on everyone’s tongue yet it is difficult to define. The definitions depend on whose opinion one takes, what is happening at the time and what cultural context one is studying. It is generally seen as desirable though it is a subjective value placed by the individual with all their preconceptions and experience. Moss and Pence (1996) state:

“…for who could not want “good quality”? – unless and until we have to say what we actually mean, at which point it becomes far more elusive” (p.1).

They go on to suggest that there are two types of definition of quality, one is an analytical and descriptive meaning, as in describing the “quality of mercy” in Shakespeare’s play. The other is more of a measurement against some value or standard and takes the form of an evaluation as to the degree to which certain outcomes can be predicted in the child, by observing the processes that are going on (e.g. interactions) and the structures that are in place (e.g. staff: child ratios).

All children have needs which often require adults to provide for them. According to Maslow (1970) all human motivation is based on a set hierarchy of needs ranging from basic physiological needs ( food, water, oxygen) to self actualisation (to achieve ones full potential). Maslow argues that children’s motivation for different activities passes through several levels, with entrance to subsequent levels dependant on first satisfying needs in previous levels. If an individuals needs are not met, he or she cannot scale the hierarchy and so will fail to attain his or her true potential. (Carlson, Buskist, Martin, 2000) Although, the majority of children’s basic and safety needs are often met by the adults who care for them, the issue of children’s rights has caused much debate in recent years. The 1989 Children Act created a uniform welfare principle giving statutory effect to the principle that the child’s welfare shall always remain paramount. While this concept appeared to encourage a shift in power from adults to children, the rhetoric of empowerment in the Act was significantly tempered by the qualification that the child must be of ‘sufficient age and understanding to benefit from the potential increase in personal autonomy. (Scraton, 1997)

Enabling children to exercise their rights empowers them and enables them to participate in the control of their lives. However, Saraga (1998) states that ‘rights’ like ‘needs’ is a highly contested concept particularly when applied to children. (Curtis, Hagan 2003) Saraga goes on to say that children depend on the adults who care for them to assert their rights for them and that their rights are limited by the child’s vulnerability and dependency. It would be interesting to know what children (the youngest, but most affected stakeholders) think about their pre school provision, though in practise their views are rarely sought.

The reciprocal nature of the interaction between the child and his or her environment is best illustrated by Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development. Bronfenbrenner (1979) used the concept of an ecological system to describe the inter – relationship of the child and their environment and split this system into four structures. According to Bronfenbrenner, the dominant ideologies and cultural patterns of that time influence what kind of government departments are provided to support families, how the legal system is designed, how communities organise themselves and how families should bring up children. He called this the ‘macrosystem’. He refers to the ‘ecosystem’ as a structure of conditions in which the child plays no active role but which can influence the child’s life. For example the parent’s working conditions. The ‘mesosystem’ refers to the relationship between two or more settings which the individual is involved with which directly influence the child. Whereas the child’s progress at school is affected by the competence of the teacher. He refers to the ‘microsystem’ as the interactions between the child and their immediate environment. (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This structure could be a major factor in a child receiving quality childcare in a nursery setting.

Although care for young children has always been provided, in one form or another, the emphasis on educating as well as nurturing was brought to the fore in the early nineteen hundreds by pioneers such as Froebel, Montessori and McMillan (Bushel, Fawcett, Selwyn 2002)

Although the 1918 Education Act made provision for nursery education and the early Labour Party issued a pamphlet in 1919 advocating its widespread use, the demand for nursery schools and day nursery places did not increase in the UK until during and following the Second World War. However, the most common form of childcare at this time was still for neighbours and family members to care for the child while the mother was working.

The Plowden Report (1967) emphasised the need for Pre-school nursery provision to be part-time and start at three years of age. This was partly due to the prevailing theories of maternal separation and the effects on the child (Moss and Penn, 1996). Nevertheless, it still regarded nursery provision as “an injection against educational failure” (Clarke, 1988). Over recent years, there has been increasing pressure on governments, as women’s roles have changed, to provide funding to allow expansion of provision and equality of access. There has also been a growing recognition of the value of high quality early education for all children. (oced 2000) The government is attempting to provide clearer guidance on what constitutes good quality early childhood education and care services through the publication of a series of quality guidelines, the development of an early years curriculum framework, and a more efficient regulation framework of registration, inspection and enforcement. Bushel et al (2002) suggest that current provision remains fragmented and any government will be faced with the problem inherent in providing a universal and quality service.

At present, all nurseries are required to meet the minimum educational outcome as specified in inspection criteria contained in the Schools Inspection Act (1996). Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scales (ECERS) provide a framework which can be used as a basis for the inspection (Munton, 1997). All nurseries in the public, private and voluntary sector wishing to claim state funding for the provision of early education are overseen by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Providers of childcare are regulated and inspected under the Children Act 1989. (DFEE 1999) Although this is the manager’s responsibility what is asked for by parents may be different according to various factors such as social class, ethnic background, urban or rural setting.

There is, currently, a National Childcare Strategy which seeks to ensure sufficient child care facilities at reasonable cost. The present government has implemented some initiatives and, at the moment, every four-year-old and two thirds of three-year-olds have a free nursery place. They have set a target of free places for all four and three-year-olds by September 2004. (DFEE 2000) So, from a manager” perspective, this offers scope for expansion and increased business revenue, whereas the parent will view the initiative as the state aiding in the support of his or her child’s development and/or an opportunity to seek employment.

The Government seems committed to ensure the expansion of early childhood services are accompanied by a strategy that could guarantee that all early years services are of high quality. However, within national guidance the Government is also keen to encourage local, community focused responses to quality implementation. This mix of national direction on quality and local implementation of practise is a characteristic of the Governments approach to quality improvement in early childhood settings. (oced, 2000)

From a manager’s perspective, the basic purpose of the nursery can be viewed in two different ways. On the one hand, we can regard the provision as simply temporary child “storage” to enable the parent some respite from looking after the child. The main emphasis in this “warehousing” approach would be to cater for the child’s basic physiological and safety needs so as to be able to return the child to the parent in the same condition as was taken in. The other viewpoint is to see the provision as one which positively contributes to the child’s development in all respects; physical, intellectual, social and moral. This “greenhouse” approach is obviously of more benefit to the child but demands more resources both in terms of staff and equipment. Foundations and memories of early years can form the basis for future development so it is important when considering pre-school care to be aware of the effect it might have upon a child’s ability and potential to function successfully in adulthood. Hilgard (2000) suggests that negative effects of pre-school day care tend to be emotional in nature whereas positive effects are more likely to be social. Cognitive development is usually affected either positively or not at all. However, Hilgard qualifies this by saying that these findings apply to nursery care of “reasonable quality” and further suggests that “poor quality” care will have a negative effect upon children, regardless of their home environment

It could be argued that the manager’s viewpoint will be one that has safety and containment at the centre and that the fulfilment of the educational outcomes may be more to do with meeting audit and inspection requirements than being seen as an intrinsic function of the nursery. Nursery managers may well be altruistic and have children’s welfare in mind, but they are ultimately in business to make a profit. It is important to the manager that every place is filled as empty places reflect a loss of revenue. Important in the manager’s calculations is the staff-child ratio and how this external requirement can be implemented in a cost-effective way. Moss and Pence (1996) write:

“Professionals focus on structural features of child-care programmes such as adult-child ratio, group size and caregiver qualifications that are often associated with safe, positive experiences for children” (page 46)

Research has demonstrated that many childcare workers are not well qualified and that there are problems of high staff turnover. It has been noted that high staff turnover contributes as a major factor in poor quality childcare, as an estimated 30% of staff working in nurseries leave their jobs each year. (oced 2000).

In this context, it could be seen that the manager’s view of the service provision is in contrast with the parent’s view, which concentrates primarily on the welfare of a single child.

Although the parent is obviously concerned with safety issues, this is often thought to be so fundamental that the parent assumes this aspect has been addressed. Their focus, therefore, may be more to do with how the nursery and its staff will interact with their child and whether the child will be happy. Increasingly, parents are concerned with the nursery’s curriculum and how the nursery will contribute to their child’s development. Moss and Pence (1996) state:

“In contrast to professionals, parents want assurances that their individual child’s experience will be safe, pleasant and developmentally sound. The critical difference between parent and professional perspectives on child care is that parents are seeking a child care arrangement that will meet the needs of their own child and family: they bear no broader responsibility for the child care field” (page 46)

Moss and Pence (1996) go on to suggest that the parents views have often gone unheard due to the simple fact that parents rarely came together as a body to discuss issues and that this has altered somewhat as a result of the recent interest in research into parents views about quality. Play has emerged as one of the most debated subjects in childcare over recent years and far from being simply a means of entertainment for children, play has been seen to fill a function in learning about the real world. In 1999 a Guardian article (cited by Miller 2000) headlined “Play is out, early learning is in”, the education minister was cited as saying:

“that play should be purposeful and that the days of toddlers colouring, cutting and pasting are over” (p.7).

Many developmentalists see in children’s play clear parallels to the child’s current stage of development and suggest that many different kinds of play experiences are needed to help the child achieve his or her full potential.

Cole (2001) suggests that the level of sophistication of infants’ play depends on the social context in which it occurs.

Play is advocated by Bandura (cited in Hilgard, 2000) as a means of promoting a child’s social and emotional development. Nurseries should, therefore, encourage a wide scope of play activities and the range available at a nursery may give an indication of the quality of the care provided.

Children are, by their very nature, vulnerable. A primary duty of a parent or guardian is to protect the child from harm. Indeed, the very word “guardian” suggests this. It goes without saying, therefore, that those who act in loco parentis share the same duty. From the perspective of nursery staff, this duty may be said to be extended in the nursery in as much as the staff have a duty not only to not harm the child but also a less straightforward task which is to alert the authorities if a child shows signs of having been physically or mentally abused by someone else.

Each nursery should have a protocol to enable all staff to know exactly what to do in circumstances where suspicions are aroused This is a most sensitive issue and whilst any right thinking person would applaud this arrangement, too enthusiastic application of it might wrongly accuse a parent of ill-treatment with the consequent distress this would cause. . There is, therefore, a strict need for all staff to be educated in what to look for in cases of child abuse.

The law provides a degree of protection in that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Amendment Order, Home Office 2004) does not allow offenders to consider their offence “spent” (and thus not have to declare it) when applying for positions that involve the care of children and other vulnerable sections of society. However, it is the duty of the nursery manager to ensure that all prospective staff are “screened” by virtue of a Criminal Records Bureau check to discover any record of convictions or cautions.

Any system that is fair must offer itself to all sections of society and not discriminate against any one or more sections. We live in a multi-cultural society, a society that has a mixture of abilities both mental and physical. Ideally no child should be excluded from the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a nursery place. Clearly, the provision should reflect the needs of the particular setting in which it is placed and provision made for such things as the appropriate language, cultural needs and spiritual obligations. Staff should not only be recruited without any discrimination in relation to race but should be educated as to the values of the nursery and the policies which are in place to avoid discrimination.

The issue of quality in early years care is being widely addressed in the UK

with the development of a more integrated and coherent quality regulation and inspection system. Over time these initiatives should ensure that all settings meet certain minimum standards of quality, which may gradually be made more stringent as standards of provision improve. However, there will always be people who care more for convenience than for quality in their child care and there will always be those who are more concerned with their own needs rather than the child’s. These may be the minority. Quality is seen today as a fundamental element that nursery care is examined on. This essay has demonstrated, however, that the concept of quality differs according to who one asks. The parent is concerned primarily with his or her child’s experience and the quality may be measured by how happy the child seems to be. Children’s happiness cannot be measured very scientifically and for the nursery manager, quality may be seen in much more observable and measurable terms, especially those terms which are imposed from external bodies. The nursery manager has to deliver to a pre-defined standard in order to stay in business and quality measures that exceed this standard are those which are market-driven and provided as “added value” in order to attract customers.

The overall ‘quality’ of private nursery services across the country will inevitably continue for some time to be seriously uneven, especially in terms of staffing issues. (oced 2000) Still more importantly staff training has, up to now been so varied and often inadequate that the quality of pedagogy which children will encounter is at present unacceptably diverse. Moreover, staff are expected to work effectively with all children including children at risk and issues involving multi culture and disability. The challenging and complex pre – school stage demands high levels of professionalism and so far government plans for raising the standard of educational qualifications need to be adequate for early childhood services that do justice to this critical foundation period.

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