20:20 Vision

On the occasion of Hempsall’s twentieth birthday, James Hempsall OBE reflects on 20 years of change in early years and childcare and looks ahead to what the next 20 might have in store.

A national strategy for childcare

It was 1999 when James decided to work independently, after working for a local authority and in the charitable and voluntary sector.The country’s first National Childcare Strategy was less than two years in and the number of new developments in the sector was gathering apace.Local councils were being asked to set up new delivery partnerships, undertake local supply and demand research, develop new plans, and set up infrastructure to drive through the ambitions of the strategy at scale and at pace.

James says:

“Early years and childcare was used to being a Cinderella service, often ignored or excluded from wider strategies, and funding was almost non-existent.The national strategy was rightly ambitious, but it was an enormous challenge as there were capacity and capability issues everywhere.I was no stranger to childcare development having worked on new initiatives in out of school childcare, children’s centres, and new models of playwork and childcare.It soon became apparent an informed approach to such challenges and a methodical attitude was in high demand.The business became very busy, very quickly”.

Partnership, places and delivery models

During the first 10 years, Hempsall’s was working mainly for local authorities (LAs) across England.There was a requirement to support partnership development, working together, research and planning.Then there was a focus on delivery with high targets for creating new childcare places, a changing framework for quality standards moving from a local to a national framework – the Early Years Foundation Stage, and the introduction of Ofsted inspections.New models were also being tested including the Sure Start local programmes tasked to reach families with children under five-years-old with joined-up local preventative services.That programme morphed into a wide-reaching children’s centre programme.

Failures and ambitions leading to new legislation and reform

New legislation in the form of the Children Act (2004) followed the Victoria Climbié Inquiry by Lord Laming.This was a time of identified failures of the system to safeguard children, and a maturing ambition for childcare services to do more and to be connected better to other services.With the Childcare Act (2006) there was also a focus on sufficiency of childcare making sure it was available for parents in ways they needed it.This was a key driver for changing the way Government funded early years and childcare entitlements and what they expected in return.

James reflects:

“This was, and continues to be, a huge challenge.The different ways services are delivered across the country and in a diverse sector is a complex picture.The way in which an individual home-based childminder works is in stark contrast to that of a large chain of nursery providers.Funding arrangements differ from area-to-area, and some funding is universal (available to all three- and four-year-olds), and some is targeted for least advantaged two-year-olds, or the children of working parents (such as 30 hours which started in 2017). Parents and families are different too, and want their entitlements in ways that meet their needs.Providers have very many plates to spin.”

Regional Childcare Networks – childcare sufficiency

For the past 10 years, the business has worked much closer with central government and early years and childcare providers.These roles have placed Hempsall’s in the middle of some multifaceted challenges.First came the various duties contained in the Childcare Act (2006) around childcare sufficiency and families’ information, amongst others.Hempsall’s role was to work regionally supporting and challenging local authorities in their discharging of these duties.A role combining an approach of in-depth knowledge, capacity development, scrutiny and challenge, and supporting networking and skill-sharing.

National funding for least advantaged two-year-olds from 2013

All requisite skills when DfE contracted Achieving Two Year Olds (A2YO) – a Hempsall’s project from 2012-2016 to support the national roll-out of 15 hours of early learning for up to 250,000 least advantaged two-year-olds each week.This targeted programme aimed to support children most at risk of failing behind their peers by the time they started school, to receive more and earlier support.

James says:

“It benefited from A2YO working with all 152 local councils in England and tackling the strategic, operational, attitudinal and systemic changes needed for it to be implemented at scale and on time.This was a project we were perfectly suited to.It combined our subject knowledge and specialism, built upon our existing strong relationships with LAs, matched our commitment to tackling disadvantage, and made best use of our skill-set of support and challenge.”

30 hours for working families

When the government announced plans for funding 30 hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds of working families, it was clear this extra challenge would not happen without on-the-ground and informed support and challenge, just like Hempsall’s had delivered for A2YO.There was much to be done: new funding arrangements and models, remodelling businesses and delivery, workforce changes, introducing new IT and national information systems, and managing in a testing external environment.A new project, Childcare Works, was created.

James says:

“Everyone knew this one was going to be a tough ask.And they were right.But we didn’t shy away from the challenge.That said, parental demand has been high, and not one week goes by without a parent sharing with me their story of what a huge difference this has made to their family choices.Over 300,000 children use such a place each week.For providers, there were, and continue to be, big decisions and changes to make, and reconciling all the different funded models and fee-paying arrangements is a complicated and often frustrating task.The workforce is also under pressure as terms and conditions need to be of sufficient standard to attract, retain, and develop the very best early years professionals.”

Wider work and future change

Alongside these national programmes, Hempsall’s has continued to deliver a wide-range of projects such as business support for providers, up to 1,000 training workshops and events a year, childcare sufficiency assessments and other research, and coordinating TALK Derby - a DfE funded speech, language and communication programme. International work is growing as well, with enquiries from governments across the world keen to explore what lessons have been learned, outcomes achieved, and ideas to inform their ambitious strategies.

Looking forward to the next 20 years, James says:

“Change has been such an enormous part of the past two decades.This is likely to continue as policy-makers have come to realise the many positive outcomes attributed to good quality early years services for children and their families.No longer do we need to hammer home the arguments about early identification of need, early intervention, school readiness, children’s brain and physical development, and the impacts on employment and family opportunities.Politicians also know how popular such entitlements are with parents.

What next?

Therefore, it is unlikely we have reached the limit when it comes to further increments in the hours added to entitlements – whether they be universal or targeted.However, this shouldn’t come cheap, nor at the expense of some parts of the sector less able to manage the many demands and external pressures.Investment is needed, and more of it, for longer.I’ve always said, the more you fund early years, the more they will deliver in return.The systems need to be simpler for all, for ease of access but also to reduce unnecessary burdens and barriers for providers and parents.The minimisation of risks related to government funding should not be disproportionate to the systems put in place to mitigate them.

I mourn the slow diminishing of the best early identification and intervention services delivered by high quality Sure Start children’s centres, and when we lose experienced early years professionals who can no longer remain in their roles for whatever reason.This is because many children need to be reached earlier, their needs identified, and proper and effective multi-agency action taken to protect them, support them, and enable them to succeed physically, emotionally, intellectually, and economically.Laming told us that very clearly in 2003.I have seen growing numbers of children presenting special educational needs and disabilities, and speech and language delay. There is a moral duty to do what we can to ensure services are responsive, adequate and effective to provide equality of opportunity and tackle disadvantage.

What could the future look like?

If we were to invent early years and childcare now from scratch, would it look like this?I guess not.The 20 years has been a journey with high levels of incremental change sometimes at large scale, sometimes small.If it was up to me I would commission a really good literature review of all recent reviews and take the best from them, and complete a root-and-branch examination of all things early years for the parts they don’t reach.The passion and commitment in this sector is high as is the willingness to get things right.Next, I would start a year-long debate and discussion so a new 20-year plan can be coproduced.The plan must address all the inequalities and anachronisms.But that can only be achieved with a generation-long, high value investment to finally establish the sector and shake off its Cinderella past and create true equality.In it, I would want to see ways in which we achieve level playing fields within the sector, so all parts of it have parity, respect and the ability to deliver differentiated services tailored to families’ needs.The workforce would need to be equal with other parts of the education system, properly resourced, and qualified early years practitioners should be no different to qualified teachers.Funding should invest in quality at all points and be linked to operational costs fairly across the diverse structure of the sector from individual childminders through to large chains across the whole country.Systems need to be robust to ensure quality and accountability but must not act as a deterrent for parents and children in accessing their entitlements, nor a barrier for the workforce to enter, succeed and remain in the sector.

That way, we will be much closer to the rewards we all want and need from supporting our youngest and most vulnerable children, and their families.Because childcare changes lives.

The views expressed within this paper are those of James Hempsall OBE, Director of Hempsall’s, October 2019.

Twitter @hempsalls


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