25 Nov 2005

The need for a clear coherent, Early Years Strategy in Northern Ireland 

Keynote Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People at the “Celebrating Good Practice in Early Years Against the Odds” conference in Millbrook Lodge Hotel, Ballynahinch on Friday 25th November 2005

When I was thinking about the challenge of speaking about early years policy it reminded me of the old joke about the Englishman in rural Ulster who pulls up at a crossroads and asks for directions for Belfast. The country farmer standing there, scratches his head, rubs his chin, and eventually says “Well, mister if I were going to Belfast, I wouldn’t start from here!”

That’s how I feel about early years policy in Northern Ireland. I wish we were not starting from where we currently are.

The reason I am so concerned is that early years provision is so important. It is crucial to children’s wellbeing and development.

All of us who are parents would acknowledge how concerned we are to give a good start to our children. Many parents do try and stay at home as long as they can with their children after they are born, and we should make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

I take my hat off to the many hundreds of childminders throughout Northern Ireland, who daily open their homes to provide loving care and attention to children.

I applaud the dedication of workers in cross-community play groups, and in play services who provide are so professional and invest so much in providing a safe, fun place for children to play and develop.

I respect the teaching staff in nursery schools and classes who are so committed to the well being of young children and helping them prepare for school.

And let’s not omit the private sector contribution – some of us in the public and voluntary sectors can be a bit sniffy about the work of the private sector, but they do play a significant role. Many people do not realize that a number of private daycare providers have achieved or are working towards high quality standards such as the NIPPA Accreditation Scheme.

But because early years is so important, we must get it right – a proper mixed economy of provision working to appropriate common standards.

The major research project undertaken by Queen’s University for my office raised some fundamental issues about the impact of current policy, for example:

  • The lack of equality of opportunity for children across Northern Ireland to access suitable pre school provision
  • Differences in practice and quality between voluntary and statutory provision, recognizing that statutory provision takes different forms
  • Problems of funding for the voluntary sector
  • The need for more full time places
  • The lack of provision for children with disabilities
  • The problems for the voluntary sector in having suitable premises as they struggle to get funding for capital items

This is not an exhaustive list, and other issues have come to light since the research was undertaken over a year ago, for example the impact of PEAGs funding with 2 year olds ending up in maintained nursery schools that may not have the facilities best suited to care for them. And of course there is the widening gulf in both policy and funding terms between what is happening in Northern Ireland with the position elsewhere in the UK, and indeed across the EU.

You know the NICCY symbol is of a watchdog, well I think it is fair to say that early years policy is a bit of a dogs breakfast.

But in addressing these issues, I think we have to be very careful not to dive in and take a very strident position on an individual policy question, without looking at the broader picture. We have to be careful not to look at each issue through the lens of our particular sectoral background.

Imagine if you got a childminder, a playgroup leader, a nursery school principal, a businesswoman running a chain of private nurseries and a hard pressed parent trying to make good arrangements for their children- imagine if you got that group in a room and asked them to discuss funding and inspection arrangements… I think you would soon have a very lively if not fraught discussion on your hands.

No, we must not start with thinking about the means whereby children are cared for, we must start with what we want to achieve. We must begin to focus on outcomes for young children.What are the ends? What are the objectives? What is all this about? Indeed, those who drew up the programme for this event cleverly recognized this when they asked me to talk about early years policy in context. The context is crucial – we must not pick at issues in isolation.

And that is where I think my own legislation is enormously helpful in taking us back to first principles. I think that the principle aim of the Commissioner – “to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”, should be the aim of us all. Moreover the legislation goes on to identify two further important influences to guide me in my work that are relevant here: first, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and second the important role of parents in the development of their children.

We must get back to first principles – and there is no better place to start than the UNCRC. You see, that is essentially the set of promises that our Government has made to all the children in our country. The Convention must shape our thinking in all the services we provide.

Let me draw your attention to just a few articles of the convention that I think are key

Article 3 says “In all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”

“Best interests of the child” that surely is our guiding light. Not funding regimes or structures or hidden agendas about which sector does the best job. We all must focus on the right of every child to a high quality early years experience.

Article 6 makes two fundamental promises, which I paraphrase slightly:

“Government recognizes all children have the right to life” and something which is at the heart of what you all do “Governments should ensure to the maximum extent possible that children survive and develop healthily”

Again, all of us can immediately agree that ensuring “to the maximum extent possible” that children survive and develop healthily is fundamental. We must do all we can to promote the development of the child – whether we are talking about a child with learning disability in Dromore, a child living in poverty in a housing estate in Lisburn, a traveller child in Downpatrick, or a very gifted child in Newtownards.

Article 31 says in summary

Children have a right to relax and play and to join in a wide range of activities appropriate to the age of the child.

Play – this is a really important issue for early years policy. Children must have the opportunity to play, to learn through creative activities, to have fun! Note the crucial rider “appropriate to the age of the child”. We must ensure that children have play activities appropriate to their age, and opportunities that will mean children are already eager to learn by the time they start school

So the UNCRC gives us some excellent guiding principles, and it also recognizes that further point in my own legislation the crucial role of parents.

We cannot design and implement early years policies without taking a very major account of parents’ role in their childrens’ lives and of the realities of how families live – the day to day circumstances they cope with whether that be the intensity of life of two parents out at work, the deprivation faced by a lone parent struggling to get employment, or the challenge of having a child with a disability.

So if I were to summarise what these principles mean to guide early years policy I would identify some key factors

  • Best interests of the Child must be put first
  • Do all we can to promote development and wellbeing of the child
  • Play appropriate to the age must be the focus of early years provision, as a right in itself for the child and not just as a means to an end
  • Prepare for formal education appropriately
  • Recognise the role of parents and the reality of their lives

It is interesting to me that the latest piece of legislation in England on this area – the Childcare Bill – which some have already unhelpfully caricatured as meaning a national curriculum for babies, actually has a stab at some overriding aims for early years. It talks about “promoting the well-being of children” and “promoting learning and development of children”. Not a million miles away from what we have been talking about. I am not saying I support everything else in the Bill, but I do agree that we must set out some aims at the beginning.

I also think it is important to state that the major research projects that have been undertaken do show that quality early years provision make a real difference for a child’s later progress at school. This is especially so for children from the most deprived backgrounds.

Now I think I need to answer the question raised by my Ulster farmer earlier. If we wouldn’t want to start from here with early years policy, what should we be starting with?

My view is that we need to have a coherent framework which sets out the overall objectives of early years provision, and gives guidelines on what is appropriate for different ages, within an framework of clear outcomes.

We need funding arrangements for provision which create a much more level playing field for different kinds of provision which meet the same standards, and recognize the financial circumstances of families.

We need a common inspection framework, and common standards about issues like staffing ratios for different ages of children.

We certainly need a single Department providing a very clear lead on early years policy, and a streamlining of the range of funding initiatives that currently exist.

We need to breathe life into the whole child model outlined in the children’s service plans, especially in the pre-school sector

Current arrangements simply provoke a series of uncomfortable questions some of which I alluded to earlier.

Can it be in the best interests of the child that:

  • Nursery schools with guaranteed funded places under PEAGs are required to admit 2 year olds when their facilities are not best suited to the needs of the children?
  • Cross-community playgroups and play services are under threat because of the protective funding of the statutory sector?
  • Parents may not place their child with a well trained childminder simply because a funded place is available within a formal setting?
  • There is a lack of emphasis on the need for play as an end in itself?
  • Children with special needs have such poor provision, and if they are not in the statutory sector they will not be able to get additional help?
  • Staffing ratios differ so widely between different sectors?
  • There is overlap in inspection arrangements between HSSTs and the Education and Training Inspectorate?
  • There is very little help for mothers or fathers who choose to stay at home to look after their children, apart from at the very beginning with the statutory maternity/paternity provision which the Government has improved?

    Northern Ireland is really losing out as developments gather apace in England and Wales. Some further questions:
  • Where is the policy on Children’s Centres for Northern Ireland?
  • Why does SureStart seem to be evolving and improving in England but is a more static policy here?
  • Why are we lagging behind in the development of extended schools?
  • Why do we not have a common inspection framework for early years and the different strands of provision?
  • Will there be an appropriate training, development and workforce strategy in Northern Ireland?
  • Will legislation be introduced similar to the new Childcare Bill but tailored to Northern Ireland’s circumstances?
  • How can we ensure better accountability in our arrangements when local councils have so much responsibility in England?

That last question about accountability may be addressed somewhat by the arrangements announced earlier this week in the Review of Public Administration. Perhaps the new community planning responsibilities of the seven councils, will look at early years provision, and involve the local health commissioning bodies, and the province wide education authority.

We have been waiting for sometime for the conclusion of the Department of Education’s deliberations on pre school provision. We were to have heard at the end of June and then September. Our latest information indicates it might not be until the New Year.

I am sure none of us mind waiting a little longer if we really do get the coherent strategy we need, as long as it is in good time before the start of the next school year. I have been encouraged by the steps taken by the Secretary of State in sorting out the after schools and childcare funding crisis arising from the gaps in EU funding, and in the commitment of £25m of new money, we believe, to children’s services.

In September, the Secretary of State said “I plan a new drive to deliver access to high quality, affordable childcare – critical to creating the flexibility for people who are bringing up a young family to enter or come back to the workplace. We have fallen behind other parts of the UK in the provision and funding of services for children, be that childcare, pre-school, or after school activities and Surestart. I intend to begin to address this in the forthcoming budget”

That is encouraging, although I would want the revised approach to emphasise the rights and best interests of the child, as set out in Articles 6 and 31 of the UNCRC - not just the economic benefits of parents’ participation in the workforce.

So I hope that government will rise to this challenge.

We do not want a piecemeal solution. We do not want a wholesale import of UK policy.

But what we do want is a coherent, fair strategy that has the rights and best interests of the child at its heart.

We want a realistic policy, a realistic timescale and realistic resources.

Thank you.