Early Years and FE can often feel like distant relations in the education family – linked but at opposite ends of the learning journey. Yet the connection between the two is much closer than many appreciate.
The most obvious link is the critical role FE plays in providing new entrants to the childcare sector with the skills and knowledge required to deliver high quality provision to both children and their families.
We also have the equally important responsibility – especially given the ongoing retention issues in the early years workforce – of providing professional development opportunities and career progression to ensure more experienced staff not only remain in the sector but thrive.
But what we don’t always consider are the less tangible connections between the two sectors – and how the childcare sector supports FE in return.
Childcare is defined as care for children, especially that provided by either the government, an organisation, or a person, while parents are at work or absent for another reason. Every parent and carer should have access to affordable, great quality childcare and early education for their child.
Campaign for Learning’s recent policy paper – Expanding Childcare: time for children, parents and family learning – points to the need to better appreciate childcare as a social good; one that’s not only important for facilitating work and child development, but also allows parents to train, re-train, and take their first steps back into learning.
At present, childcare entitlements and the Government’s proposed expansion are focused on working parents who are required to work 16 hours a week to be eligible for free childcare.
On a policy level, the paper’s authors and Campaign for Learning make a strong case for treating 16 hours of skills training as 16 hours of paid employment, to ensure parents partaking in training would also get continued access to free childcare.
This could apply to parents taking part in Skills Bootcamps or taking relevant childcare qualifications in FE, which would also support the expansion of the childcare workforce. There is also potential for supporting parents to learn online at home, so they are able to go back into the labour market.
The paper goes on to look at support for family learning and routes into further learning, and how time for family learning could also be included within the 30-hour and 15-hour free childcare entitlements for children aged 9 months to under 5.
Understanding its value
As a sector, FE needs to better understand childcare’s multifaceted value. Accessible and high-quality provision allows parents to pursue their own education, engage in training programs, or re-enter the workforce with confidence.
By providing a safe and nurturing environment for their children, parents can focus on personal and professional development, acquiring new skills, and advancing their careers. It helps parents balance their work and family responsibilities, contributing to their economic stability and reducing barriers to employment.
Childcare facilities can also act as centres for family learning, where parents can actively participate in their children’s education. Family learning programmes promote positive parent-child interactions, enhance early literacy and numeracy skills, and foster a lifelong love of learning.
Recognising childcare as a social good also highlights its potential to provide career opportunities. Family learning initiatives and childcare settings can serve as stepping stones for parents interested in pursuing careers in both education and childcare. By engaging in these activities, parents may discover a passion for working with children, leading to future employment or training.
A further benefit of the early years sector within society is its impact in helping to address gender disparities. Historically, the burden of childcare has disproportionately fallen on women, limiting their educational and career opportunities. By appreciating childcare as a shared responsibility and valuing it as a social good, we can promote gender equality by enabling both parents to actively participate in education, training, and employment.
Changing the mindset
Too often childcare is seen solely through the lens of convenience or child development. By changing this mindset, we can better understand its potential to empower parents, facilitate family learning, create pathways into the workforce, encourage early education, and promote gender equality.
In valuing childcare in this broader context, we can advocate for policies and investments that support its accessibility, affordability, and quality, thereby benefiting individuals, families, and society as a whole.
It’s time to get the whole education family around the table to better understand what connects us and how we can all support each other.