Piecing Together the Jigsaw Policy Lab 3: Blog

Ben Wray

Piecing Together the Jigsaw is a participatory project co-ordinated by Common Weal and Edinburgh University

THE third and final Piecing Together the Jigsaw policy lab on February 3rd will consider policy and initiatives from early years to early adulthood.  

One area that will be looked at in detail will be the delivery of early years.  Some of these issues were developed in a recent paper sent to the Scottish Government, which had initiated an online consultation on their blueprint for the delivery of 30 hours per week free childcare.

 A number of academics, professionals and policy analysts came together to put forward an approach that built on the Common Weal’s ‘An Equal Start’ report.

Their response was separated into various areas including transition, participation, diversity, skills, knowledge, qualifications, mix of professionals, pay, pedagogy, accountability and fair/flexible early years services. A summary of the response is set out below.

Key points:

Transition and Participation 

Transition should be child led and parent involved and involve professional reflexivity.  The power imbalances in primary schools need to be addressed and the culture of ‘school readiness’ questioned.  Transition processes are not currently participatory, rights based or, flexible – yet professionals, parents and children all believe they should be. More research should also be done into changing the starting age, we need to flatten the power relationships of schooling and we should ensure that deferral processes are neither tokenistic, manipulative or hierarchical. Finally, research concluded teachers did not read transition information (which took a lot of time for nurseries to produce) and there should be no place for rigid base line assessment in the early years of primary. 

Participation and Diversity 

Evidence of participatory practice exist e.g. see Cowgate Under 5s Centre and The Froebel CPD Course.  McNair (2016) and Blaisdell (2016) argued that it is possible to embed participation into early years practice and avoid children’s participation becoming a one-off or periodic exercise, that is merely a tokenistic or tick-box exercise. Their work suggest that participation requires professionals to analyse issues of risk, development and power.  Davis 2011 and Davis and Hancock 2007 argued for more considered approaches to the participation of disabled children and children from minority ethnic families in early years service decision-making.  The SSSC ‘Taking the First Steps’ research findings demonstrated that professionals who possess the BA Childhood Practice degree, believe the qualification has made them more knowledgeable concerning issues of participation, anti-discrimination, rights and social justice. However, it also indicated that such professionals are less experienced at utilising this knowledge in practise. As a country that promotes anti-discriminatory practise – consideration should be given to how existing anti-discriminatory approaches should be improved and promoted within a new early years curriculum and an ‘early learning and care national curriculum and review group’ should be set up to make recommendations on how to update the curriculum covering 0-7 years of age.  Similarly, Davis 2011 argued for an approach to early years based on anti-discrimination rather than lukewarm multi-culturalism – a new Scottish early years curriculum should balance the need to value historical Scottish cultures with the need to recognise the diverse cultures that children from a variety of backgrounds possess. The recent reviews (Siraj, Kingston, 2015, Commission for Childcare Reform, 2015) in seeking to create universal solutions, have tended to treat parents as if they are one type. They make little mention of the experiences of ethnic minority or LGBT families who, for example, may experience discrimination in early learning centres by rarely being invited to take part in social events, seldom being asked to carry out leadership tasks (e.g. during outings), or never being requested to take management roles on parent committees.  A truly participatory and anti-discriminatory service would not have these issues and would ensure that all provision is accessible for disabled children and that staff are suitably qualified to work will and support the wishes, hopes and aspirations of all types of children. Barriers to inclusion that must be removed are: a lack of material resources, poor communication between professionals, a lack of inclusion of child and parent voice, a lack of accessible buildings, a lack of anti-discrimination knowledge and practice, a lack of strong supportive relationships etc. 

Skills, Knowledge and Qualifications

There is a need to fund new Post Graduate Childhood Practice qualifications, their development by universities and the cost of fees to students.  Universities who currently provide undergraduate routes (and the few who currently provide post-grad routes) should have guaranteed numbers from the Scottish Funding Council and those numbers should be increased (see common weal ‘An Equal Start’ report for figures).  The increase in numbers of qualified staff need to be part of the national strategy and properly funded – so far the BACP has been developed with hardly any funding and with the good will of university staff which is ridiculous when the Charter Teacher qualification (which is no more) got 1 million in funding and John Swinney announced £1m investment in a new proposal which also includes incentives to lure back teachers – £1 million of Childhood Practice degree development would ensure there were enough courses to increase staff and manager numbers. The Scottish Government must ensure that all architects, local authority managers etc who are employed to design and enable the new early years provision have carried out disability equality training and have training related to early years pedagogy and design.  Equally, new CPD training courses should be developed to ensure all service managers gain advanced understanding of inclusion and accessibility issues.

Mix of Professionals

There should be a balanced mix of professionals.  The BA Childhood practice should continue to be the key qualification for the sector. Child minders should be employed in local authorities and partner providers a community based approach to should be adopted to ensure flexibility of provision.  All professionals should have relevant training in early years (including child minders and teachers).  Teachers who do not have early years qualifications should not be working in early years.  A non-early-years-qualified teacher should never have hierarchical power over a specifically trained BA Childhood practitioner in a nursery setting. 


A universal childcare service would set national pay scales and ensure that funding went into wages and not company profits.  On average the pay gap is £10,000 pounds for practitioners and managers between the private and public sector – partner providers should have to pay the same wages as the public sector to stop the brain drain. Early years workers, who have been campaigning for equal pay for over 10 years, get very hacked off when politicians put forward sentences about addressing pay – but do not table polices to improve pay.  They have heard empty mood music from politicians for too long.  The government’s report estimates local authorities paid partner providers £79 million in the financial year 2014/15.  This gives the government leverage – they should use this leverage to produce a more radical set of changes to address pay issues in the sector.  The Scottish Parliament should ensure that in order to receive tax payers money, all early years providers should immediately be required to become living wage employers (partner providers who are eligible to receive Scottish Government funding should not offer poverty wages).  Then, we need to do three things that are set out in the Common Weal’s ‘An Equal Start’ plan:

·      We need to increase quality, creativity and wages in the early learning sector;

·     We need to publish national pay scales for any organisation receiving funding for early learning from the government;

·  And, we need to produce a national framework for delivering a high-quality childcare service uniformly throughout Scotland (let us hope the ‘blueprint’ does the job required). 


A well-designed national early years curriculum is important, following Sweden and New Zealand. The curriculum would promote creative and environmentally based concepts of learning that focus on the development of cognitive skills, including play, music and plenty of time outdoors. The curriculum would not include any form of assessment or testing of the children and would not be overly formalised. the curriculum should not be overly prescriptive – innovation and creativity of professionals should be encouraged, as well as encouraging children to problem-solve themselves.   The Scottish Government need to finance the building of new early years centres that are located within settings that promote outdoor play. The Common Weal ‘Book of Ideas’ emphasized the need to produce state of the art community-based resources that connected the need for early years centres to the need to regenerate rural communities and town centres.  A once in a life time opportunity exists to set up national structures of support and funding to enable community owned, social enterprise and cooperative organisations to develop community run out door and play-based provision. 


Even the word ‘accountability’ is a problem – service quality should be defined locally and negotiated with children and parents – top down performance indicators should be avoided.  The Scottish Government faces a critical juncture at the moment – it needs to stop trying to count quality because children and parents experience quality as something deeper and more meaningful.  The government promotes a creative curriculum but fails to understand that such a curriculum has difficulties coexisting with uni-causal, static and rationalist ideas.  Rationalist counting of quality – leads to perverse incentives and a rigid reductionist curriculum.  If the government wishes to truly enable a creative curriculum and pedagogy in early years it needs to move away from rationalist top down approaches and trust professionals, parents and children to locally establish relationships of quality provision.  The problem with current approaches to inspections in early years is that they lack a strong theoretical starting point and result in contradictory practice because some inspectors promote approaches which are contradictory to notions of creative, flexible and outdoor pedagogy.  These inspectors demotivate staff and this situation comes about because many of the inspectors do not have the same training as staff and they adopt hierarchical practices that lead to conflict.

Fair and Flexible Early Years Services 

These can only be achieved by moving to a universal model.  Private sector involvement is an anathema to fairness.  We know that a voucher system or learning account system will not produce fairness. In the USA voucher systems have been accused of forcing education institutions to compete between each other, of resulting in segregation of affluent and less affluent children (affluent, white, middle and upper class parents have more choices in the way they can use and top up vouchers) and of creating divisions between consumers (parents) and educational staff (because the relationship becomes about consumer choice and not about learning).  The Scottish Government have the opportunity to create state of the art facilities that enable all Scotland’s children to be educated together in their local community based provisions. There is a danger that vouchers will promote a segregated form of provisions as more affluent parents use them to get into private schools at the earliest possible opportunity. Early years education should not be a tradable market place.   A flexible system will only be achieved (in the time required) if we balance national and strategic leadership and support through a national service with local development of creative new centres that are locally run and managed.  A national service could be a mix of social enterprises, cooperatives and local authority provision. 

A Common Weal Perspective

The Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study indicated that, after a certain point, spending more time in childcare services is unlikely to reduce socio-economic disadvantage – therefore we should be clear and honest about the reasons why we aim to increase the child care hours available to families.  Obvious benefits include the potential of gains: for women (in terms of career development) and the economy (in terms of increased productivity, pay and infrastructure investment). But, a wider perspective would think of the common weal, the potentially integrative and inclusive impacts of early years services and it would be connected to other policies concerning citizens income, community redevelopment, environmental sustainability, work-life balance and intergenerational collaboration.

When doubling the amount of provision, we have the opportunity to provide an equal starting point for young children where they all attend local settings and are not divided into those who can afford private provision and those who have to settle for something lesser.  At present public provision provides the highest levels of learning and care.  We should be proud of this great start and we we should utilise this strong foundation to build a new service that balances public, voluntary, cooperative and not for profit provision according to local aspiration and need. A new service needs to not only move beyond the current status quo of poor pay, inaccessibility and lack of availability- to also stand as a beacon for participation, social justice and inclusion.  We need to courageously look ahead with vision and work together to design a fair and intergenerational system for children, parents, professionals and community members.  A fair system that stands as a demonstration of what a confidant Scotland can achieve and acts as a learning point for other countries to follow. 

Authored by: Professor John M Davis Moray House School of Education University of Edinburgh, Dr Lynn McNair (Head of Cowgate Under 5s Centre/Director of Froebel Course Moray House School of Education University of Edinburgh), Dr Cara Blaisdell (Early Years Teacher/Lecturer University of Strathclyde/ Pupil Support Assistant  Cowgate Under 5s Centre), Melissa O’Neil (Early Years Officer Davidson’s Mains Primary School), Kirsten Thomson (Early Years Teacher/ MSc Student University of Strathclyde), Aline-Wendy Dunlop (Emeritus Professor Early Years School of Education University of Strathclyde), John Corbett, Neil Watson, Tom Angus (Saol Community Company), Laura Gilbertson (Early Years Teacher/ MSc Student University of Strathclyde) and Ben Wray (Head of Policy Common Weal).

If you would be interested in attending Policy Lab 3 on February 3rd please contact ben@common.scot