Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 70 - 83)



Charlotte Atkins

  70. Most of us would say we would not like to start from here, but we do have to start from here. So what would your first two priorities be? Secondly, you talk a lot about nursery schools. Yes, I accept that nursery schools do a grand job, but people's real lives are, certainly in my constituency, that they need child care from 7 o'clock in the morning very often to maybe 6 o'clock at night and that might change every day of the week. So nursery schools are great but they are only one very small part of the package.
  (Professor Penn) My point about nursery schools is that they could be so much more. As you may know, I have carried out research into nursery schools and the attempts they are making to develop integrated services, and those attempts are considerable but they do tend to be stymied at every turn by the way in which they are viewed within the education sector. I certainly do not agree with the notion of part-time nursery entitlement. If the Government could be persuaded again to look at the notion of part-time nursery entitlement and how it fits with other forms of provision other than wrap-around care, whether it can be extended, that would be a major step forward. Also, perhaps the Government could look in more detail at the way in which nursery schools themselves could be helped to expand to provide a more integrated setting. Most of the early excellence centres are in fact ex-nursery schools. I agree with you, nursery schools as they are currently conceived by the Government within the education framework are inadequate, but it seems to me they do have the base for offering so much more.

  71. So if you were to present two key priorities to Margaret Hodge next week, what would they be?
  (Professor Penn) Look again at the nursery entitlement and systematise the funding so there are not 81 different little caches on which to apply for funds. We heard from Pam, Pam has a full-time job looking for money, and that should not be necessary. There should be a central pot of funding applied to Early Years.


  72. What would you say to people who say when you look at the Government's performance over these last four years that one of the refreshing bits about it is in a sense if there is an ideology about it it is pragmatism, looking for solutions which actually work. That sometimes does lead to a proliferation of initiatives and in the education sector at large people talk about initiative fatigue but some of us believe that one has to try a range of things in order to see what works. Some of the things the Committee saw when we looked at this inquiry were very encouraging and would never have happened without innovation, trying something different. Some of them we could see perhaps were not going to survive, thrive or influence anyone, but others were. Would you not agree that that kind of innovation, trying a number of ideas pragmatically and evaluating them on the evidence of success, is better than thinking there is a holistic approach which says, "Bang, we are going to have a state sector system, cradle to 8 or whatever, all financed by the state, and that is the better system"? Surely that has not worked all that well?
  (Professor Penn) I do not think I am saying that either.

  73. Okay. I am parodying it to bring you out, in a sense.
  (Professor Penn) I certainly think that pragmatism and innovation and so on are necessities certainly at a local level as well as at a government level, but I do not think they can compensate for the absence of any coherent policy, and it is that absence of policy, that lack of coherence about funding, the failure to realise the problems which the policies are causing, which really concerns me and I think others.

  74. You said there had been dribbles of money but the evidence given to this Committee is that we are talking about in excess of £7 billion pumped into this pre-school age. That is a lot of money when the university sector, the 11 to 16 sector, every sector is looking for more government investment.
  (Professor Penn) I certainly think the Government's accounting needs to be scrutinised more carefully, because a lot of this money is, as some people have pointed out, double-counting and it is not quite as straightforward as it may appear.

  75. So you think the Committee has been hoodwinked on those figures?
  (Professor Penn) I think there is room for a real economic investigation into the way this funding operates and whether or not it is the kind of amounts the Government truly claims. I am hoping to persuade the Social Market Foundation to carry out such research. I am not claiming there has not been enough funding, I am saying the approach has been fragmented. A lot of it is short-term money, which means projects are unsustainable, the turnover of projects is enormous. In Margaret Hodge's own constituency, where I work, in Barking and Dagenham, the number of carers who have left the profession equals the number recruited in. The number of child care places over four years has remained constant despite the fact they have had all these new people coming on, because so many of the projects which are funded locally are simply unsustainable. They get their money for three years, they do not get quite enough money so they have to cast around, and in the end the effort gets too much and they give up. I did ask Margaret about the turnover and the measure of turnover of facilities, of carers and of children in different kinds of settings, what kind of record she had of that, and I am afraid there is not one. I think that is a very important thing for the Government to try and introduce into the child care audit.

  76. Can we turn and deal with your experience in terms of international child care programmes, the only foreign visit we made was to Denmark.
  (Professor Penn) Were you impressed?

  77. We were in part. In part it was an impressive system. It was a very expensive system, income tax is 50 per cent and VAT is 25 per cent in that country, it is hardly likely that most parties in this country would try to persuade the electorate to accept that in the next election. Overall there were aspects of it that we thought were wonderful and others that were of a little concern to us. What is the right system that you have identified? Is it Denmark, where we went, or is there some other system that you think we could adopt?
  (Professor Penn) I think all systems have their strengths and weaknesses and, of course, they have grown up within a particular national tradition, so it is virtually impossible to lift one system and put it in another place. I do think that the essence of the Scandinavian system, which we could learn from, is the fact that they do have very integrated policies for the Early Years and they do not have this notion of division between nursery, child care or wrap-around care but they do have an integrated approach as opposed to the kind of competitive market orientation we have. It is quite common for children, I think, as some of the other witnesses have said, to move between several settings in the course of a week. Over the course of their first five years they are likely to go through a whole series of different arrangements. As I say, we would not tolerate that here in any other part of the education system, yet for very young children we think this kind of turnover and moving about is acceptable.

  78. Do colleagues want to ask any last questions before we wrap this up? Helen, is there anything you would like to say to the Committee that you think would be regrettable if it was left unsaid? We very much enjoyed your evidence.
  (Professor Penn) I think all I can say is, all power to your elbow.

  79. We have a couple more minutes, I really want to press you on the training and professionalism. You heard what the National Training Organisation said.
  (Professor Penn) Yes.

  80. What is the way forward in terms of producing a highly trained and professional perspective in the centre?
  (Professor Penn) Because so many child care workers are working in the private sector, where profits, necessarily, have to come near the top of their agenda, I do not realistically see that things are going to change very much for the majority of child care workers. There could possibly be local funds to enable the kind of on-going training that various organisations would like to see. The situation of training reflects the wider picture. The only additional comment I might make is about the Early Years degree routes, which I do know about, since I work on one, and I think that the transfer between the NTO, child care qualifications and the degree routes are not really worked out very well. The OECD commented on financial proposals for training and I am sure that is in the process of being addressed.

  81. The last point, you have done some work on men working.
  (Professor Penn) That was some time ago.

  82. One of the worries we had, and was shared by colleagues we met in Denmark, is that a very small percentage of men come into this sector, both in this country and in Denmark. Is this just a question of pay or what is at the heart of the reluctance of men to come into this setting?
  (Professor Penn) My own research, which was for the DfEE and indirectly for the OECD, suggested that there were very profound gender differences in the way in which men and women view working with young children. Like everything else, unfortunately, it is really rather complex, it is not just a question of encouraging more men, it is a also question of the kind of general attitudes we hold in society and how they are more broadly addressed.

  83. Thank you very much for your appearance before the Committee and to all of you who have taken the time to come back to us. I hope you found the process worthwhile, this is pretty cutting edge for us, you know, asking people to come and say, "What do you think of our work?"

  (Professor Penn) "Would you vote for the Government the next time round?"

  Chairman: We did not ask that, this is a select committee. Thank you very much for your attendance.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 4 July 2001