Opinion: ‘Is this an opportunity to reset the relationship with the sector or a stepping-stone to higher Ministerial appointment?’

David Wright
Thursday, October 19, 2023

David Wright, ambassador for Paint Pots Nurseries, responds to the appointment of David Johnston as the Department for Education's children's minister at the end of the summer, the eighth person to hold this post within five years.

So farewell, Claire Coutinho, welcome, David Johnston. The revolving-door of Government appointments continues to spin as we experience our ninth change of Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing since 2017 and the fourth since September of last year. Seemingly, the rate of change is accelerating but whether it is or not, one thing is clear - we do not have stability or consistency. Perhaps we should accept this as intrinsic to the nature of politics and a healthy characteristic of democracy? Is it the post or the person who matters? In my experience human endeavours in any sphere of life work best through personal connections. Whether or not we agree on matters of policy or ideology, whether the incumbent is our sort of person or not, positive engagement seems to me to be the best basis for building rapport. It takes time, probably more than the few months successive Ministers have been in post, to establish reciprocal, respectful and trusting relationships. This of course presupposes a will and commitment to sit down with the sector to listen, learn and to act in its best interests. And secondly that it is clearly understood who represents the sector, who can speak on behalf of its disparate constituencies. In other words, who it is exactly that the Minister should be talking and listening to. Is it fair to say we have seen many photo opportunities over the years using early years settings as a backdrop for yet another political announcement, where often the rhetoric just espouses the party line? Where does real engagement with the sector happen, I wonder? And does it make any difference? Are Ministers really listening? And if so, why do their actions consistently fail to meet our needs? Why does the messaging continue to be about “free” childcare – “the biggest expansion in history…..” and not about high-quality early years care, development and education for our children? In fact, I don't recall children featuring at all in any announcement of additional early years funding in the last budget. Why is the staffing retention and recruitment crisis being considered only as an afterthought to these announcements of historic “childcare” expansion? We all know why people are leaving our sector in droves – low status, high stress and insufficient reward. Where is the disconnect between the message repeatedly conveyed to Claire Coutinho by our sector representatives and the continuing lack of action on addressing any of these? Do our Ministers listen and choose not to act? Are they powerless to act in the face of more pressing national priorities? If so, just what is the purpose of a Minister with this portfolio? Is it just a stepping-stone to higher Ministerial appointment or could it be an opportunity for the right person to make a difference by standing up for the rights of all our nation's youngest children and our sector's workforce?

‘Where is the disconnect between the message repeatedly conveyed to Claire Coutinho by our sector representatives and the continuing lack of action on addressing any of these? Do our Ministers listen and choose not to act?’

So what can we expect of David Johnston? Will he pick up where the previous Minister left off? Will he be willing to engage with sector experts? Will he attempt to understand the needs of our youngest children, their families and their wellbeing and those who provide care and education for them? Or will we see political expediency – what it is felt will go down well with the electorate? E.g. “more free childcare” or maybe idiosyncratic policy making?

Reflecting on the operation of our democracy, I am reminded of the often-cited quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that it is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” For me, this begs the question – which people? Who exactly are the people making policy decisions? On what basis/evidence are they making them? And which people are these decisions for, the one's most likely to vote for the governing party e.g. working parents, or the disenfranchised – e.g. children and the early years sector workforce? Evidence suggests our collective voices have not been listened to up to now. Perhaps Winston Churchill was more accurate in his assertion that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”?

David Johnston has the opportunity to reset the relationship with the early years sector, to work collegially for improved status and pay, to halt the drain of experienced staff leaving the sector and to make it an attractive profession with real career prospects and to be an advocate for the children he represents in this role. He has already noted his 16 years' experience “running organisations for disadvantaged children” and his delight at being able to work in this new role “giving children the best start in life”. Let us hope that his actions and that of his department, live up to this aspiration.


David Wright

Ambassador of Paint Pots Nurseries and member of EYE's Editorial Board

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