This is a week when the government suggested two-year-olds go to school and primary school children stay in school for longer hours. Last year I wrote a blog, Sending Two Year Olds to School in their Babygros, as I suspected there were plans afoot to put two-year-olds into schools. I was not wrong as last week childcare minister Liz Truss wrote to all local authorities urging schools to take two-year-olds. She suggested they make use of available space to accommodate those 38,000 two-year-olds without a "free nursery place".
I was incandescent, not least because of the idea but because of the weak, lily-livered response from so many. Baroness Sally Morgan, the now sacked chair of Ofsted, had already suggested we move two-year-olds into school. So when Michael Gove ousted her, I did not cry. No doubt the next chair could be worse but at least the baroness set out her views to give us a clue of the future direction of travel.
On my blog last week, A tale of two Michaels I raised an eyebrow when Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw commented that he would not tolerate anyone telling him how to assess good schools. Perhaps now he can be more tolerant of those of us in early years very concerned about the fact that policy is being pushed in a direction that all of us who know anything about two years advise against.
Meanwhile, shadow minister for childcare Lucy Powell used this worrying phrase in a piece in the New Statesman last week: "Whilst Labour believes that schools can play an important role in caring for pre-school children..." However, she seemed to mitigate this with some sensible observations, such as that it is pie in the sky from ministers to suggest that schools taking on more two-year-olds will be cost-neutral. There are other questions too about what a classroom for two-year-olds would look like and whether parents want this kind of provision for their children.
I also turn to academic evidence. The Hadow Report (1933) based its findings to the question of what constitutes a nursery on the work of Issacs, Montessori, the McMillan sisters and Froebel. The report said: "The fundamental purpose of the nursery school or class is to reproduce the healthy conditions of a good nursery in a well-managed home." It continued: "When children are admitted at the very early age of two years, the school must have even more the character of the home."
So am I just saying no to two-year-olds in school because it seems so counter-intuitive, or do I have some sensible research-based reasons? Two weeks ago, Oxford University and the Sutton Trust produced a report Sound Foundations which suggested we slow down the roll-out of the two-year-olds programme until we had the right places for those children. The London Early Years Foundation is soon to publish our own report called the Twoness of Twos to prepare us for taking the two-year-olds from the government programme for disadvantaged twos. We wanted to make sure we had the right environment and experiences ready for these children and their parents. Unsurprisingly our report very much aligns with Sound Foundations.
Two-year-olds cannot just be stuffed into an Easyjet, budget childcare system. A few spare places in nurseries designed for three and four-year-olds in school will not be suitable. The wrong environment can damage children. Am I paying my taxes to have a damaging effect on a vulnerable two-year-olds? Tony Judt in his book Ill Fares the Land talks about the taxation system being built on trust and mutuality, and that when that trust is corroded by poor policy and political behaviour it's almost impossible to rebuild.
So why would two-year-olds not thrive in schools? Children who are two-years-old are still babies and need care and nurture. Many are likely to be in nappies, have limited language and drink from a bottle. They need higher ratios to meet the balance of care and education. Staff must build sensitive and responsive stable attachments with them. They need really good language rich relationships, with lots of conversations, singing and stories. At the London Early Years Foundation we have a mantra: "Two words together at two, 1000 words at three and fluent by four." They learn through play and many two-year-olds are still engaging in parallel play which requires sensitive scaffolding and the right environment to ensure they can dip in and dip out.
Now let's think about parents. Many of the parents we see mirror the needs of their children. They need a lot of support and we are building the art of pedagogical conversations to help them learn to translate what happens at nursery into the home and vice-versa.
If we care about our children and future generations, we must reverse the idea that children can be squeezed into somewhere on the basis of available space, cost cutting and political expediency. We are judged as a society by the care we give out children. Future generations will not thank us for failing on our duty to our youngest citizens.