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"Let's embrace change and build a service we're proud of"

The imminent roll-out of additional childcare hours is challenging but presents a chance to be bold and innovative, writes Gemma Paterson

The countdown is on. From August, every three and four-year-old as well as eligible two-year-olds will be entitled to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare per year. This almost doubles the previous allocation of 600 hours.

Due to be universally available, the change in funded provision represents one of the biggest expansions early years in Scotland will probably ever go through.

For some 1,140 is an unknown and represents a whole new model of service delivery which comes with many questions, challenges and positives. However, it is worth noting that in many places, including across Falkirk, this expansion of childcare is already being delivered.

Supporting the workforce

To date, one of the biggest concerns raised has been the capacity to deliver in a physical sense. Are there enough trained, high quality ELC practitioners to effectively deliver the hours promised?

The expansion naturally brings a flurry of activity in the recruitment of practitioners. Further education establishments and modern apprentice programmes have increased their capacity to ensure we have the practitioners needed for post-summer implementation. This is welcome, of course, and signals a robust and plentiful future workforce.

However, a quality workforce means developing and training new practitioners, and also supporting current staff to deliver the new landscape of provision.

I have spoken many times about why we need to strive for excellence, in delivery but also in leadership. A team that does not feel valued, trusted and supported is not a high functioning team and in turn our children do not receive the very best early learning and childcare experience. When this is the case, we are selling our staff and our children short.

"For the additional hours to work there needs to be strong pedagogical leadership"

The culture of early years is changing and so are the expectations of practioners and leaders. With that the opportunity to create something innovative, creative and exciting for Scotlands children is at our fingertips.

For the additional hours to be successful there needs to be a strong, confident and consistent pedagogical leader within all early learning and childcare settings. And for effective pedagogical leaders to be present within settings, there needs to be a responsibility placed on local authorities to provide practitioners within all local authority and partner settings with the appropriate training and incentives.

In Falkirk, we are extremely lucky to have strong pedagogical leaders pathing the way. Professional development opportunities take place at every level, from early learning and childcare assistants to senior early years officers and beyond.

We have also welcomed equity and excellence leads to our teams, which, in my opinion, is an absolutely vital addition to the workforce.

However, I am acutely aware that we may not represent the norm. Is this the case everywhere? If not, I would suggest we are expecting far too much, without really committing to a quality workforce.

Changed days

A significant change which will be experienced with the introduction of the enhanced provision, is a change to how the early learning and childcare days are structured.

There is the very practical element of what these days will look like – what sessions will be offered and whether the provision will be offered term-time only, or all year round. Will meals now be included, when previously in some settings these did not factor? Each of these have implications on staffing and physical resources which need to be carefully considered.

Crucially, there needs to be variety in order to suit the wide range of families we have in Scotland.

“Free provision means nothing if it cannot be accessed”

In remodelling our 1140 early years offering, we need to ask: do the models being developed across Scotland truly suit the needs of families or are they being developed on the practicalities within authorities.

In Falkirk we have designed a system that offers both full and half-day sessions, term-time only and all year round. But this has involved a significant review of our working practices – and also what will work for the parents we work with.

We have worked in partnership with private partner nurseries and also with local childminders, ensuring the funding truly does follow the child and works for each of the families. As most parents will tell you, free provision means nothing if it cannot be accessed.

Building blocks

As well as having the practitioners to deliver 1,140, we also need the space.

Space to Grow, the design guidelines published by the Care Inspectorate in 2017, outlines the characteristics for an effective 1,140 settings such as places to rest, spaces to eat and free flow access to outdoors. Some settings simply do not lend themselves to this.

“We need spaces which are fit for purpose and can used purposefully”

I am fortunate that within my local authority area, there has been a commitment to ensuring each setting has what it needs, physically, to deliver 1,140. This has meant some buildings have been remodelled, some have needed slight alterations, and there have been the addition of a few new builds. This is of course an added financial pressure, but in order for our practitioners and leaders to deliver a successful 1,140 service, they need to be in spaces which are fit for purpose and can be used purposefully.

 A lifeline for parents

Ultimately, the increase in funded childcare hours represents a lifeline for many families. Whether it is making working life a little easier, allowing a return to work, or having opportunity for your child to play, learn and grow in a safe and secure environment, the opportunity to access high quality, funded childcare can make a big difference for many families.

“We can’t just continue as we have always done.We are required to work a different way”

We must strive to ensure that the expansion does not compromise the quality of services and care we provide, or negatively impact on the opportunity for children to develop as unique, creative and curious youngsters.

The experiences we provide for children must be relevant, exciting and all encompassing, promoting the delights of early childhood. Splashing in puddles, having a picnic in the woods and exploring the local community, as well as the cosy stories, building castles from cardboard boxes and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. This doesn’t need to, and musn’t change.

But, we can’t just continue on as we have always done. We are required to work  a different way. A creative and exciting way. A new way. A way which our children and families can get excited about.

We want the children within our settings to truly benefit from the expertise we have and the experiences we can provide. We want our children and families to be excited about our new offering. And we want them to be able to, and want to, access it.

So, while we face many challenges with the early learning and childcare expansion, we must embrace the opportunities. Practitioners must embrace the change, the opportunity to develop a new service and a new experience which they are proud of and can lead as accountable and professional individuals.

Gemma Paterson is a Lead Early Years Pedagogue at Falkirk Council

Falkirk Council have been phasing in the increased provision over the last three years, with the first official phase in the 2018-19 session.

Email Gemma for more information on how provision is working in practice.

This article was first published in Children in Scotland magazine, Issue 196. Published in February 2020.

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Children in Scotland magazine: Issue 196

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