GK Associate and early years specialist, Monica Thompson, takes a close look at what the UK can learn from the Nordic Model for childcare, and analyses the early years reforms suggested in the recent Times Education Commission Report.
The Nordic Model
In June 2022, Children & Families Minister Will Quince visited nurseries in Sweden as part of a mission to cut childcare costs . The minister visited multiple settings, both state-run and private, and met with senior officials from the Swedish counterpart of Ofsted and Sweden’s Minister for Early Years Education & Childcare. The discussion focused on how the settings in Sweden are able to provide high-quality childcare without putting children at risk and enforcing staff to child ratios. Quince noted that he is determined to address the cost and availability of childcare and learn from our international neighbours.
Some evidence on what works in Early Education in the Nordic countries was provided by Andreas Rasch-Christensen, Research Director at VIA University College in Denmark at the Early Years Alliance Annual Conference – also in June 2022. The Nordic countries have some of the highest employment rates for working mothers and high take-up of childcare places. Andreas pointed out that in Denmark above 90% of early years children are enrolled in day care and approximately 40% of the day care employees lack an official diploma. He also highlighted the importance of the pedagogical foundation – in other words, how Danish and Nordic models of early childhood education are considered. Their work focuses on collaboration with parents to support the children and further improve pedagogical practices. It also underlines the importance of nature and the outdoor environment. Indeed, it has been shown that connections to outdoor living can affect children’s strength, flexibility and coordination, while also reducing stress. These pedagogical foundations, guidelines and themes – as opposed to narrow learning goals – give an insight into Nordic models of early childhood education in both theory and practice.
The Times Education Commission Report
The need for Early Years reform has also been highlighted in the recent Times Education Commission Report. Published on 15 June, the final report from the Commission was entitled Bringing out the Best, How to transform education and unleash the potential of every child . This year-long project has been led by the Times’s Rachel Sylvester, supported by a team of 22 commissioners with backgrounds in business, education, science, the arts and government. The report has been described as one of the most comprehensive inquiries into the UK’s education system and more than 600 witnesses contributed. The report rightly points out the challenges of declining social mobility as well as, more positively, the myriad opportunities presented by new technological innovations.
The commissioners’ work culminated with a 12-point plan to significantly rethink the British education system:
- A British Baccalaureate
- An “electives premium”
- A new cadre of Career Academies
- A significant boost to early years funding
- An army of undergraduate tutors
- A laptop or tablet for every child
- Wellbeing being put at the heart of education
- Bringing out the best in teaching
- A reformed Ofsted
- Better training for teachers to identify children with special educational needs
- New university campuses in 50 higher education “cold spots”
- A 15-year strategy for education.
Significantly for the Early Years sector, the report recommends (as noted above, point 4) “a significant boost to early years funding” – noting that “The extra funding should be targeted at the most vulnerable. A unique pupil number would be given to every child from birth, to level the playing field before they get to school. Every primary school should have a library.”
The Commission also identified many challenges facing the Early Years sector. Indeed, it found, more generally, that the education system currently fails on all measures – from giving young people the intellectual and emotional tools they need as adults to providing businesses with the skills they require. For Early Years specifically, it found that inequalities are ingrained from an early age and preschool education is crucial but often overlooked in this country. The report also highlighted that while one thing that parents put at the top of the list for their children’s education is confidence about their wellbeing, the evidence suggests that they are being let down.
The chapter on Social Mobility and Levelling Up contains also many recommendations for the Early Years sector, including:
- funding should be targeted at the most disadvantaged and focused on education and child development
- the 30-hour entitlement should be extended to non-working parents to ensure that the children with the least support at home received it in a professional setting
- the Early Years Pupil Premium of £302 should be brought into line with primary school rates of £1,345. Raising it, at an estimated cost of £130 million a year, would make it easier for nurseries to break even, reduce the reliance on cross-subsidy and allow providers to pay their workers a more competitive wage
- there should be a better career structure, professional development and training for Early Years teachers to develop a well-qualified workforce with the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to deliver high-quality early education
- every child should get a “school readiness card” at the end of nursery, describing their skills and development
- a unique pupil number, allocated at birth, would encourage greater co-ordination and data-sharing between government agencies (such as education, health and social services) to stop the most vulnerable children falling through the gaps .
There is an increased awareness of the Nordic Model in the Early Years sector and an increased understanding of why it’s successful. At the same time, the Times Commission’s recommendations provide a plethora of evidence on what the sector needs. The question is whether these important developments will translate into practical policy decisions.