By Emma Head, Lecturer in Sociology
The views of Elizabeth Truss (Minister for Education and Childcare) on early years childcare, were in the news again today. The Daily Mail is running an interview with Truss where she laments the manners of children in nurseries and talks regretfully about the fact that children in some nurseries appear to spend their days ‘running around with no sense of purpose’. In the interview, Truss also compares British nurseries unfavorably with their French counterparts. This interview picks up on some of the plans for childcare that were published earlier this year in a document titled 'More great childcare'.
Truss' comments on childcare settings are interesting as they echo some of the criticisms that social researchers have made about the way that children tend to be understood in government policy. I also think that her comments should raise some points of concerns for anyone interested in early years setting and the well-being of children who are cared for in them. Truss' remarks that children run around with ‘no purpose’ hints at an understanding of childhood that comes from an adult looking down on children; rather than seeking to understand how young children experience the world. A quick example of this – I recently arrived early to pick up my three year old from nursery. Through the door, I saw him charging around the nursery, wearing a witch's hat and cloak. For Truss, this might be a good example of free flow play with no purpose; a childcare worker (or his mum), might think he was engaging in an imaginative game; getting some exercise, and being part of a friendship group. For my son, I guess it would be understood as something fun to do.
Truss’s vision of childcare services then, seems to chime with what sociologists of childhood would understand as an emphasis on children as ‘becomings’. In government policy there is a tendency to focus on childhood and children’s services as a place to solve the social and economic problems of wider society. So, we think about childcare settings in terms of their future outcomes, rather than thinking about young children as important in their own right. The problem with this focus on children as adults-in-waiting, is that it ignores what kinds of services are best for them as small children. It also helps to obscure the wider problems with childcare in Britain, which are about the lack of state investment in nursery buildings and facilities; and how expensive childcare is for parents in Britain. Indeed, Truss has personal experience of some of this; in another interview she talks about her own difficulties in finding a full-time nursery place in London and instead opting for a nanny.
Truss’ wider plans for childcare are about increasing the ratios of children to carers; of providing tax breaks to couples in paid work, and a concern with improving the formal qualifications of childcare workers. It is difficult to see how these plans will work together to improve early years services for young children. A plan for childcare services is needed that is much more supportive of the caring work that childcare workers do; that pays attention to the needs, well-being and happiness of young children; and crucially, has a much clearer sense of purpose.