The early years is a crucial time in a child’s life where their learning and development can be rapid and where their experiences have a significant impact on their future life chances. Those of us who work with babies and young children and who have a professional interest in and knowledge of child development, know how important high quality early education is.
But is childcare separate from education? I would argue you can’t have one without the other; it’s hard to imagine an experience or activity for a child in a childcare setting where learning doesn’t happen. So why are we still using the term ‘childcare’?
It seems to me ‘childcare’ is more about offering a service to allow parents to work. The emphasis is on the economy, and ‘affordable childcare’ crops up in the press time and time again. But what is more important for the children? Surely the quality of their learning experience in an early years setting?
The early years sector has always had trouble gaining the same respect as our school colleagues; many individuals outside the profession think of childcare as ‘babysitting’ where staff need few qualifications, and as long as children are kept safe while their parents are at work, then ‘childcare’ has done its job.
However, early years staff educate children too. Some would argue it’s the most important part of their work, and that care and education go hand in hand. We know that children who feel cared for, and who feel safe and happy, are ready and eager to learn. It’s not just about keeping them safe, clean and fed, and kept busy until a parent or carer comes to collect them.
Child development is complicated and needs the very best individuals in the sector, who are willing to reflect on early education theory and practice, and who are continually learning to be the best teachers and practitioners they can possibly be. This is not ‘babysitting’ or ‘childcare’.
The lack of understanding about what the early childhood sector does is likely to continue until policy makers and relevant government departments fully appreciate that early childhood is the most important time in a child’s life. A time where teachers and practitioners encourage a love of learning that will stay with them for their entire lives. Early education settings need the same level of respect and recognition that the school sector has; they have an equally important role.
I’d like to suggest we all drop the term ‘childcare’ and use instead 'Early Childhood Education'. We all know it means caring for the children, too.
By Helen Edwards
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