The danger of confusing education and childcare

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EDUCATION and childminding have long been closely associated. In the 1830s, all three Brontë sisters went out from Haworth Parsonage to be governesses, either in boarding schools or the private houses of the wealthy. The posts involved both teaching and childcare, extending, in the case of Emily, "from six in the morning until near eleven at night". Why, then, do I feel the balance between the two is now so seriously out of kilter that the integrity of the education service is threatened?

From the end of the Second World War, day nurseries were set up by the government to meet the needs of the wartime female workforce with no pretence they provided education - other than on a very informal social basis. After the war, this continued in local authority day nurseries and through the voluntary playgroup movement.

At some stage, however, the concept of preschool education entered the scene. Nursery schools were established, typically staffed by one qualified teacher and a number of nursery nurses. The teacher provided an educational veneer for what was essentially organised play.

By the 1980s, more teachers were employed in the preschool sector and in the 1990s a fully fledged curriculum for the pre-school year was developed. The training of primary teachers now covered 3-12, not 5-12. The Labour government guaranteed a nursery education place for all four-year-olds, later extended to three-year-olds. By 2003, nearly three-quarters of three and four-year-old children were involved in some kind of preschool education and care. In the current General Election campaign, one of New Labour’s "final pledges" is to provide more childcare for under-fives and more afterschool care for over-fives.

In one way, all of this is to be welcomed. It addresses the reality that many mothers are, by economic necessity, in full-time employment when their children are very young. However, the developments unhelpfully fudge the distinction between education and childcare. Hard-pressed working mothers and hard-pressed partners have little time for real involvement in their children’s education and come to regard schools, secondary as well as primary, as care havens for children rather than robust educational institutions. Since formal school hours are too short for such a purpose, there is a demand for "wrap-round" care, in the form of breakfast and afterschool clubs. A child can be away from home from 8am until 6:30pm.

There is something of a crisis when schools are closed for staff in-service training. Retired grandparents are summoned as babysitters and children passed like parcels to the few homes in the street where an adult presence is available. Another crisis situation arises where a secondary pupil is excluded from school for indiscipline. Parental anger is not focused so much on the bad behaviour as on the inconvenience caused.

This is not how it is supposed to be. Educationists agree schoolwork must be backed up in the home; parents should assist with homework, support children where emotional and behavioural difficulties are encountered and meet teachers regularly. For the majority of Scottish children, we are very far from reaching this ideal.

Preschool education and care is where the fudge begins. It is harmful to describe what is mainly childcare as education, as it engenders a view that the school system is as much about care as learning.

The educational advantages of preschool education are not well documented. A child who has been in a nursery school or class may do better in P1, but it is not clear if the advantage is maintained. Compulsory schooling in Scotland is organised on a single annual intake basis, with children entering P1 at between 4 and 5. Several of our European neighbours begin compulsory schooling at six and end up achieving higher standards of literacy and numeracy. The verdict on the value of formal preschool education is "not proven".

Politicians know preschool education includes preschool care and is a vote winner with families where both adults work - and with other families looking for respite from round-the-clock childminding. But this is a social argument, not an educational one.

A consistent case I have tried to develop in The Scotsman is that the education service must defend its integrity as a service concerned mainly with learning and achievement. There are social advantages to education, but they are subsidiary to both learning and personal development. If a situation is manipulated for social reasons - however compelling - rather than educational reasons, there is an effect on the quality of education. If schools will not defend the quality of their provision, who will?