Module 01: The Early Years Of Childhood

The experience of childhood

Around the world, traditions vary as to how children should be raised. Even within an apparently single culture or social group, you will still find a great deal of diversity. Parents and other adults will not hold identical views about how to raise children, nor behave in the same way day by day. The experience of children varies considerably, both in terms of their daily experiences and the environment in which they live and learn. Despite the variety, there are some general themes that all children share and it is valuable for you to bear these in mind within your work as an early years practitioner.

Childhood is a time of change

It is inevitable that children themselves change as time passes. Even if the rest of a child’s world remains fairly static, the child will change. Children grow physically and their abilities extend; this development, in turn, opens other possibilities for them. The consequence for adults is that you need to adjust as well. Even if you are responsible for a child for a relatively short period of time, there will still be change and, for the well being of the child, you will need to be flexible and sensitive to how the child’s world has extended.

Children in their turn react, more or less positively, to changes in their social world. During the early years of childhood, young children are faced with a range of adjustments. Some changes will seem major to the children, even though the events are within normal family life, such as the arrival of a new baby or moving home. Some children deal with even more disruptive life changes, such as the breakdown of their family, the loss of a loved relative through death or a sudden move from one country to another as a refugee.

As childhood progresses, children in UK society have to deal sooner or later with becoming accustomed to non-family group settings such as nurseries. In contrast with the generations raised in the 1950s and 1960s, children of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are most likely to experience some group setting before formal school.

Experiences affect children

What happens to children changes them one way or another; they learn from their experiences. Sometimes that learning will be wholly positive for their future development, sometimes it may be highly negative and often it will be some blend of the two. Learning from experience may be as simple as the realisation that it hurts when fingers get shut in a door or drawer. Other events may be more complex and it is unwise for adults, even with a great deal of experience, to become over-confident about predicting a child’s reaction. For instance, some children are angry over the arrival of a new baby, some are happy and excited, others are perplexed.

Distressing events can create long-term emotional and psychological problems for children but much seems to depend on how a child is supported by people who are close. On balance, children seem to be more seriously disturbed by continued stress than single events. Each experience gains meaning for children through how important adults in their lives explain or fail to explain, what has happened.

Events like divorce are only a word until children can understand what it means for their life and relationships. What matters most is how adults behave towards children, including what they say. Children need to be helped to understand what is likely to happen as a consequence of any change in family life and to be reassured about the stability of their own daily life.

Adults responsible for children often seek a greater level of certainty than is realistic. It might seem attractive to be able to say this experience or event causes this consequence, or that this way of behaving towards children will ensure positive outcomes. But life does not work like that, as a limited amount of adult reflection will confirm. H. Rudolph Schaffer undertook a careful review of research studies on a range of significant life events for children and concluded that care needs to be taken about making sweeping generalisations and advancing global solutions. ‘It all depends’ may be an annoying phrase and it does not make good headlines, but it accurately reflects reality. 

Children in twenty-first-century society

Successive generations of children within the same society may share many similar experiences and there is no basis for assuming that children themselves have changed. They still appreciate time, attention and affection from their parents and other key carers. Despite a bewildering array of commercially produced toys, twenty-first-century babies still want to play peep-bo with Mum or Dad or do crawling-chasing on the floor. This generation of children is equally happy with dressing-up clothes, cardboard boxes that become anything they want and with the music of saucepans and a wooden spoon.

Children have not changed but the society in which the current young generation in the UK is growing up has changed.

  • One highly visible shift is the significant level of everyday technology.
  • Young children can become adept at handling television controls, videos and computers. The availability of such equipment, combined with increased adult concern about safety has raised a genuine problem about whether children get enough physical exercise.
  • A strong consumer society also raises the problems of financial pressure on children and their families and the fact that children themselves are increasingly targeted as direct consumers or indirectly through their ability to nag parents.
  • The other significant change for many children in contrast with previous generations, especially now their grandparents, is that so many children attend some kind of early years setting before they go to primary school.
  • Some families need childcare because one or both parents have paid work. But it has become very usual for two, three and four years old to attend nursery, pre-school or playgroup for some sessions in each week as a form of pre-school experience.

Changing families

Children need to be cared for in their early years and the usual way that this is managed worldwide is that children are raised within their own family. There are, however, many variations in how families appear.

Who is in the family?

In twenty-first-century UK most children still live with two parents, although increasingly these may not both be the child’s birth parents (the man and woman who conceived the child). Marriage is still popular, so often children’s parents are married to each other but not always.

About 20 per cent of families in the UK are headed by one parent living with dependent children. Lone parent families are most often led by mothers but about 10 per cent of lone parents are fathers. Children in lone parent families may have regular contact with the other parent. But sometimes contact is intermittent or conflict between the parents makes a close relationship difficult.

Stepfamilies are formed when adults set up home together with children from previous partnerships. Neither stepfamilies nor lone parent families are a new form of family life. However, in previous decades, especially earlier than the mid-twentieth century, they were likely to be formed as a result of widowhood. Divorce and women choosing to have babies without a permanent partner are now more common.

Although many children will continue to live with their two birth parents, many will experience changes in their family arrangements over the years of childhood. Children who experience their parents’ separation will spend some time in a lone parent family or shared custody arrangements and may later become part of a stepfamily. If current trends continue, it is estimated that:

  • more than a third of new marriages will end within 20 years and 4 out of 10 will end in divorce
  • more than 1 in 4 children will experience the divorce of their parents by their 16th birthday
  • 1 in 4 children will spend some time in a lone parent family (most likely with their mother)
  • 1 in 8 children will spend some time in a stepfamily.

There are other possibilities for those children who are not raised within their birth family.

  • Children who cannot be raised by their parents for some reason may spend time with foster carers, who take responsibility for the children within their own family home. Some foster care arrangements are relatively short but some last for years. Sometimes the plan is to prepare children for adoption. Foster parents are usually part of the family support services of local authorities. Private fostering arrangements made between birth parents and another carer remain legal in the UK, although there are moves to introduce regulation for the protection of children.
  • Some children stay with a foster family for many years and form strong attachments, others maybe with the family for only a short while.
  • Some foster families offer respite care, a service for parents who need a break from their children for reasons of family stress, illness or the child’s’ severe disability. Respite care is also sometimes offered within residential units for children with disabilities.
  • Some children are cared for through adoption, a legal process that means they are by law the responsibility of their adoptive parents. Many adoptive parents are not related to the children but in some cases, a stepparent legally adopts the child of his or her partner.
  • Some children whose families cannot take care of them become the responsibility of the local authority and are looked after children. The children or teenagers may be with foster parents or in a residential home for children.

Most parents are heterosexual but there is a growing, although a small, group of families led by gay or lesbian parents. Some parents have children from heterosexual partnerships before they accepted their sexual orientation. Others are formed by a child from this partnership, through artificial insemination from an unknown donor or cooperative parenting between gay and lesbian friends. There are some gay or lesbian foster parents.

Extended families?

Increased mobility in many parts of our society has meant that many young people move away from where they were born and raise their own children at some distance from their extended family. Within some cultural and social groups, the extended family structure is still fairly usual and some families live in households with grandparents or other relatives. In parts of the west country in England, for example, and in parts of Wales, it is still the case that children raise their own families in the neighbourhood where they were born.

Who is the primary carer?

In many families, women are still the primary carer (the person who spends most hours on childcare and organising the household). However, an increasing number of families have the father as a primary carer or, over the years of childhood, the parents alternate, depending on other factors like employment.

Changes in social attitudes are more supportive of fathers’ involvement in the upbringing of their children and it is certainly far more common to see fathers on the street pushing buggies or with babies strapped to their chest. Mothers are still mainly the primary carer and fathers can find themselves ill at ease in very female environments such as a nursery or drop-in.

Children in poverty

For all the apparent wealth of some parts of society in the UK, there is also serious poverty and deprivation in certain areas. The UK is one of the European countries with the starkest difference between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s’ in economic terms and the record on children living in poverty is very unfavourable. The most widely used definition of poverty is a household income that is less than half the national average. By this definition one-sixth of UK children are living in poverty – a total of 4.4 million.

Poverty is often linked with lack of employment for adults and areas of the UK where there has been long-term unemployment with little prospect of any improvement. Lack of work for parents is another way of looking at likely poverty for children. In 2000 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that 2.2 million children in the UK (almost one-sixth of the child population) were living in households where no adult had any paid work.

The picture varies considerably across the UK. For instance, the south of England is on balance more affluent than the north but there are definite areas of deprivation in the south. There can be a whole area of a city or town that is blighted. On the other hand, there can be quite small disadvantaged pockets in an area that is otherwise reasonably affluent. Scotland has significant levels of deprivation with 41 per cent of under-fives living in poverty. Wales and Northern Ireland have serious pockets of poverty and long-term unemployment. Wales is one of the poorest regions in Western Europe – only Spain, Portugal, Greece and former East Germany have a lower standard of living. In some areas of the UK particular minority, ethnic groups or refugee families are living in especially deprived circumstances, but poverty is a condition that is experienced by families from many different ethnic groups.

Rural poverty

The extent of rural poverty is often underestimated and isolation and lack of neighbourhood facilities can make life considerably more difficult for families who may live in what looks like very attractive countryside areas. The Forum for Rural Children and Young People (, in June 2001, estimated that rural children form about one-quarter of the children judged to be living in poverty in England. Lack of public transport can be a serious issue when families cannot afford a car or the car is the only way for the family breadwinner to get to work each day.

What does poverty mean for children?

There are significant consequences for children whose families are living in poverty and early years settings can play an important role in supporting families and offsetting some of the problems:

  • Babies of families living in poverty are more likely to have a low birth weight and to experience more ill health and accidents within childhood.
  • Limited family income often means restrictions to a healthy diet and therefore possible health and developmental effects.
  • In many families, parents give up things themselves in order that their children may be better cared for. Parents may eat less so there is more for children or go without warm clothes so that children can have a winter coat.
  • Family stresses can increase the likelihood of lower attainment in school, especially where continued poor family prospects mean there are low expectations of achievement.
  • Although families may be eligible for financial support, they may not know about or wish to claim some benefits. Children themselves may not wish to stand out at school by accepting free school meals.
  • Families in poverty often also live in neighbourhoods with fewer facilities, including play facilities for the children. The local area may be really more dangerous for children than other parts of the same town or city.
  • Some of the initiatives in early years services have been developed to support children living in poverty or deprived conditions, for instance, Sure Start projects that target under fours and Neighbourhood Nurseries initiatives.

Making sense of child development

It is sobering for you to think for a moment about just how much children learn and change over the first eight years of their young lives. The breadth of change can seem ordinary to people who spend time with children, perhaps because you are focused on current events for much of your time. However, useful adults need to step back in order to appreciate what children manage in the normal course of events and to understand that it is not surprising if children sometimes go through periods of confusion and struggle. If somebody offered to set you an equivalent set of learning goals to achieve over the same number of years, you would probably think twice before agreeing. Young children, of course, do not realise what is ahead; they take one day at a time and they are also primed to be curious and keen learners.

What happens in children’s development?

As an involved and interested adult, you can observe what happens within the development of children. Your knowledge of child development and a willingness to continue to learn will be a vital part of your own professional development as an early years practitioner. Detailed descriptions of what happens in development are usually grounded within a particular cultural and social group. However, many theories are also products of a particular time and place. The majority of theoretical perspectives that have influenced early years practice are European or North American in origin.

It is well worth thinking a bit about the different kinds of influences on how children can develop. Babies have much in common when they are born, they are after all the young of our species. But from day one their development is shaped by the circumstances in which they are raised, including adults’ beliefs about what is right and proper to do with children.

You have to develop your own good practice in a particular place and time. So you need some blend of flexibility within boundaries about what you do and why. A major part of the framework has to be developmentally appropriate expectations of children. You will find many descriptions throughout the book of what usually happens in the development of children at different ages. There are undoubtedly potential problems in laying out information that attempts to give a ‘normal range’, but there are even more problems in store for early years practitioners if you do not have some developmental framework to which you can refer.

Learning in childhood

whole child or holistic view of development stresses the importance of treating children as entire individuals. Children continue to change in all areas of their development. It is more manageable sometimes, especially in a book like this, to address one area of development at the time. When you make observations of children, you may for the moment focus on one area of their learning. But it is important to recall that children do not develop in separate compartments.

Different areas of child development

The broad areas of development include the following.

  • Physical development as babies and children gain control over their bodies and develop skills in fine and large scale movements. They learn to recognise and coordinate the evidence of their senses, to make choices about movement and the use of fine skills.
  • Children also change over the years of childhood as they grow physically, changing shape and growing stronger. Physical growth and development are dependent on diet and overall health, as well as emotional well being.
  • Children develop in the ability to share their own care as they grasp the skills of self-reliance. Children become more able to make choices and organise themselves, although full independence is still many years away.
  • The development of communication starts with the earliest use of looking and touching. Children develop in the skills of expressing their own communication and understanding that of others. Spoken language follows, including more than one language in many communities.
  • Intellectual development also called cognitive development, includes all the skills of thinking, making connections between experiences, recall and reasoning. Even very young children show evidence of the development of ideas and intellectual development is closely linked with communication skills.
  • Social development unfolds as children develop close attachments and friendships. Children come to understand themselves as part of a social community as well as being an individual. They learn the social skills of interaction and other ways of behaving.
  • Personal and emotional development underpins all other areas of development since feelings of confidence or anxiety can shape any of a child’s efforts. Children develop a sense of personal identity and self-worth. Children become more able to recognise, understand and express feelings, their own and those of familiar children or adults.
  • Moral and spiritual development is usually taken to mean a child’s understanding of values and choices about right and wrong. Spirituality may be linked with a family faith but can be a more general appreciation of experiences that are felt rather than touched or talked about.

Close links between areas of development

You will find many examples and diagrams throughout the book that highlight connections between different areas of a child’s development day by day. Here are two examples to show the links now.

Imagine the task required for a child to become literate: to learn to read and write.

  • At first sight, this may seem like an intellectual task and so part of cognitive development. Children certainly do need to grasp ideas and use their powers of recognition and recall.
  • But learning to read is also part of communication, relating to written rather than spoken the language.
  • Literacy is also part of a child’s social development as they recognise that writing is all around them and directs some aspects of social life.
  • Learning to read and write also needs physical skills of coordination and of the eye-hand movements. There is greater understanding now that active physical play and movement is crucial for these skills to develop.

Children can grow in creativity in the early years and this development links with many of the other broad areas of learning:

  • Creativity requires imagination and flights of fancy and possibility, so cognitive development is involved.
  • Children will want to express their creative ideas in a tangible form, so physical skills can also be important to them.
  • Some creative projects involve learning from others, children or adults, so social relations and communication are important.
  • An appreciation of possibilities as well as what has been created is an experience of feelings, so emotional and sometimes spiritual development is intertwined as well.

Why and how does development unfold?

Study of the development of young children partly covers efforts to describe the details of what happens as babies and children grow. However, the other side is an attempt to explain why and how development unfolds. This understanding through explanation is often explored by theories of child development.

What is a theory?

Theories are distinctive approaches to a topic and are usually a blend of:

  • abstract ideas and beliefs about what is most important in this area: as a starting point to an explanation or a way of organising priorities
  • information to support the theory and its explanations and predictions
  • some theories are developed from a basis of research, either experimental or observational or from clinical practice with children or adults with problems
  • other theories start more from a belief or philosophical stance and may gather information to support the theory along the way
  • some theories are developed deliberately so as to make predictions about what will happen under certain circumstances. These predictions form a hypothesis based on theory and are tested in some way through research.

Early years practitioners from a very practical professional group and although theories of child development may seem far removed from everyday actions, the ideas of the main theoretical approaches have made their way into childcare advice, for parents as well as professionals. Therefore, it is useful to recognise the source of some ideas and practice.

Theories about child development

One of the broad differences between types of theory has tended to be how each one handles the relative balance of the impact of nature and nurture in child development.

  • Nature refers to that part of children’s development that is shaped by heredity, that which is inherited through the genes passed on by parents.
  • Nurture refers to everything that happens to shape development after birth and repress ents the impact of the environment.

The so-called nature-nurture (or heredity-environment) debate has not really been an either-or argument for most people for many years. Even those theorists who place more weight in one direction do not usually claim that the other side of the balance is completely irrelevant. The most recent research on the development of the brain has also made the debate, or any sense of argument over nature and nurture, fairly pointless.

Biological theorists do not usually claim that biology is everything and that the environment has no part to play. A biological approach tends to focus on genetic programming as a pattern that shapes development unless powerful environ-mental forces knock it off course.

Arnold Gesell and his colleagues, working during the 1920s and 1930s, gathered a substantial amount of material about what children were able to manage by certain ages. This team believed that the sequence of development for babies and children was controlled by a biologically determined process of maturation. Gesell’s ideas were influential in gaining acceptance for the ideas of ‘milestones’ and ‘developmental norms’ and that certain behaviours were phases through which children passed.

Learning theories

Learning theorists focus on what children or adults can learn through experience and the consequences of their behaviour. Humans are seen as having vast potential, bounded by the biological limits. Human behaviour is understood to change following patterns of reward and punishment. The approach is also called behaviourism.

The principles of learning theory were first explored in work with animals but the application to understanding child development gained a social context, recognising that humans imitate out of choice, are motivated by feelings as well as tangible rewards and have a tendency to think as well as act.

Psychoanalytic theories

The psychoanalytic tradition (sometimes called psychodynamic) started with Sigmund Freud but has diversified significantly since his first ideas. This theoretical approach focuses on the impact of personality and conflicts on children’s development. The approach allows for instinctive drives, that is the impact of biology, but the major influence is then childhood experience. The psychoanalytic group of theories proposes that children’s development unfolds in definite stages that everyone shares within childhood. The theory proposes that behaviour is influenced by unconscious thoughts and feelings as well as conscious thought.

Cognitive theories

This theoretical approach focuses on how children think and make sense of their world. Jean Piaget, who was at the forefront of the cognitive emphasis in developmental theories, gave far less attention to the emotional or social aspects of children’s development. This focus contrasts with the psychoanalytic theorists who were relatively uninterested in the cognitive aspects. Further exploration within cognitive-developmental theory has extended into the more social context as well as modifying the firm developmental stages originally laid out by Piaget.

Social constructivism

The social constructivism model developed from the ideas of Piaget and of Lev Vygotsky who emphasised the social context in which children learn. The approach recognises that children make sense of their world and are not simply passive receivers of information and direction from adults. The social constructivist approach highlights the importance of alert and sensitive adults who are prepared to observe and consider their own role in any situation relevant to children’s learning or behaviour.

The ecological approach

Theorists in the first half of the twentieth century tended to take up rather isolated positions and often studied children as if it were irrelevant where and how they lived. Within the last decades of the century, some theorists from all the different traditions have acknowledged the social or cultural context in which children learn. Urie Bronfenbrenner has directly addressed children’s development within their social environment. In his ecological approach, Bronfenbrenner describes the impact of different aspects of children’s environment on individual children.

Early childhood services in the UK

The full name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but the shorthand of UK is regularly used and will be followed in this book. The UK comprises four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The central government based in London still makes some decisions that affect all four countries and some legislation remains UK-wide. However, in the last years of the twentieth century, many aspects of government became devolved to the National Assembly of Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The National Assembly in Wales can decide how funds from the central government or the European Union are spent. But the assembly does not have the power to make laws, unlike the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The relevant departments in Wales determine guidance, for instance on the early year’s curriculum.

In particular, the legislation and guidance that shapes public services for children and families have become the responsibility of each individual country.

These are the services that especially affect readers of this book: early years services, statutory education, child protection and social services. The principles underlying these services and what is regarded as a good practice have a great deal in common between the four countries of the UK. However, the laws and organisation of service can be rather different. Throughout this book, it will be made clear when there are national differences of which you need to be aware.

Services relevant to children and families


There is a range of services and professions that are directly relevant to the well being of children and their families. This section describes the most relevant services but you need to be aware that the availability of service and exactly what it is called can vary between regions.

Educational services

It is a legal obligation that children are given an education from the age of five years in England, Wales and Scotland and four years of age in Northern Ireland. For most children, education means attending school, either a state or independent school. A minority of children are educated by their parents at home. Such families need to reassure local education authorities that they have clear plans to support their children’s learning. This pattern is sometimes called homeschooling.

Local educational services include not only the schools and their staff team but also a number of advisory services.

  • Advisory teachers support schools or early years settings, may advise on individual children and support the professional development of early years teams.
  • Educational psychologists offer assessment and advice for children whose educational experience is proving difficult in some way. Some educational psychologists may be able to offer general support to teams.
  • Support services for children with disabilities (CWD) may include different professionals, some of whom may specialise in early years. The special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) will be responsible for supporting children and their families and organising assessment as appropriate.

Community health services

A range of services is available to families within the general framework of community health care. The primary health care team sometimes works together in a health centre serving a defined local community. In other areas professionals may be treated separately in a doctor’s surgery and child health clinic. The primary health care team aims to keep children healthy and generally promote health in the population as a whole. The team includes general practitioners and health visitors. Community midwives visit women at home in the ten days after birth and community nurses visit adults who need nursing care or support at home. This section focuses on services for children.

  • General practitioners (GPs) are doctors who have taken additional training in general practice to serve the health needs of adults and children. When children are ill, parents will take the child to their own GP or telephone for a home visit if a child is too sick to move. The GP may make a referral to other specialised services.
  • Health visitors have a nursing qualification and further training to enable them to support families in their home. They are responsible for supporting local families with babies and young children. Health visitors will visit families, especially when babies are young, and they organise the baby health clinics that offer regular developmental checks and advice to parents. Health visitors will offer advice about immunisations and these will be given by a doctor at the local clinic.
  • The school health service includes doctors and nurses who visit schools to carry out developmental checks to which parents are invited. The school health service also carries out those immunisations that can be given in school to older children. School nurses are usually responsible for several schools in an area and sometimes become involved in health education for children or teenagers.
  • The community dental service supports good care of teeth as well as dealing with the results of decay or when children’s teeth need corrective work (orthodontics). They are usually pleased to see young children for simple checks so that the children get used to going to the dental surgery. The community dental service may have practitioners who would visit early years settings for information sessions.
  • Opticians undertake thorough checks of the eyes and assess when children need glasses or corrective work to improve their sight.

Additional support and therapy

Health services offer a range of other professionals to whom a family could be referred to when it becomes clear that additional support is needed. These professionals may sometimes be based at the local hospital but can also be part of the team in a large community health clinic. In rural areas, there may be considerable distances for families to travel to other services.

The main objectives of therapeutic support are to:

  • make an assessment of a child that will be a firm basis for further work
  • on the basis of the assessment, develop activities, exercises or a therapeutic programme that will support the child
  • share ideas and exercises with parents and other carers so that support for the child can extend beyond appointments with this professional.

Child and family guidance clinics offer a service to families who have difficulties of some kind with their children. Examples could include children whose fears dominate their life or who have refused consistently to attend school. Children would not usually be referred to the clinic until a range of support strategies had been tried in the family.

Children and families are likely to be seen by a clinical psychologist, who has a degree in psychology and a further qualification that enables her or him to offer assessment and advice for a wide range of emotional or behavioural problems in childhood or adulthood. A family therapist will work with the whole family to identify and support how family dynamics may have affected one or more children. A child psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has taken a further qualification related to children with emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Paediatric care is health care that focuses on children. In the hospital a paediatric nurse will have specialised in working with children and a paediatrician is a doctor who has special training and expertise to assess and treat children’s health. The prefix page comes from the Greek word meaning child.

Speech and language therapists assess children who are significantly delayed in any aspect of their language development or who are having difficulties in talking. They can then offer specialised support to the children and explain exercises or practice to parents and carers.

Physiotherapists help children with physical difficulties or chronic ill health through appropriate exercise or by providing specialist equipment.

Occupational therapists (OT) advise about appropriate aids for disabled children to enable them to become more mobile or cope with the skills of self-reliance.

Play therapists support children who have serious emotional distress for whatever cause. The therapist uses the medium of play to enable children to express and deal with what troubles them.

Music, art or drama therapists will have qualifications in their subject but with further experience in using this medium to support children. Such therapists may be employed by the health services but could also be part of an educational or social services team.

Social services

Social workers support families who are under stress and where children are judged to be in need. Families will be assigned a social worker if there is concern about children’s well being and certainly if child protection issues have been raised. Social workers may also be involved in the support of families with children who have a severe disability, in order to help organise access to services and respite care. Children who become the responsibility of the local authority (looked after children) should have their own social worker.

Multi-disciplinary teams

The professionals described above will not always operate within one area of service. Sometimes, community health, education or social services bring together different professions on a permanent basis to work as a team.

‘Care’ and ‘education’ in the UK system

In common with some other European countries, the UK has a division between services that are known as ‘care’ and those categorised as ‘early education’. This division has a very long history and has not been changed despite the many innovatory developments at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first. The two broad types of service are:

  • Childcare services: for parents who are in work or are students. The hours fit a working day or one of study and parents pay the necessary fees or part of them. A childcare place can be offered from the early months of babyhood through to the school years when the service becomes known as out of school care.
  • Early educational provision: for children, usually, from about three years through to their entry into primary school. This kind of provision is normally offered on a sessional basis and follows school terms and holidays. The service cannot meet parents’ childcare needs without some additional form of provision.

There is no proper developmental basis to support this persistent division and many early years professionals have argued long and hard for a coherent early years service. The care–education split also tends to create a divide between provision for the under- and over-threes. There are, of course, significant differences between children when they are still very young and as they grow physically and develop. However, differences properly focused on the children do not justify the firmly separate traditions of ‘care’ and ‘education.

Some Scandinavian countries have reorganised the entire system to form a coherent early years service with recognised early years practitioners and Spain has also developed a system to overcome the care–education division. Denmark, Finland and Sweden have successfully created settings for children and a qualification structure that is genuinely for the early years.

Free early education places

Throughout the UK, children have free state education from five years of age in England, Scotland and Wales and from four years in Northern Ireland. Each national government has made commitments to offer free early educational places to children in the year before they start statutory schooling, and increasingly for the year before that.

These places can be offered in any of the kinds of group provision described so far. Childminding networks can be registered, so long as the provision meets the standards of the required inspection. Some mobile facilities also have been registered. The free early educational places are sessional and do not meet parent’s childcare needs unless combined with further hours in a nursery or with other forms of provision.

All early years services and the practitioners who work in them have to operate within the law. Several significant pieces of legislation are relevant for early years practitioners because these laws affect good practice in the welfare of children and their rights as young citizens, equality legislation, education including the curriculum and health and safety.

Of these areas of law, the equality legislation is UK-wide. Legislation on children with disabilities is set for the whole UK but those parts that are put into practice through early years and educational services operate within the different systems of the four countries.

Religious affiliation

Some early years provision, like some schools, are affiliated to a particular religious faith. Within England, Scotland and Wales most settings have no specific religious affiliation. The situation is reversed in Northern Ireland, where the whole early years and the educational system has to be understood against the backdrop of the great significance of religion in the Province. Most early years settings are specifically Protestant or Catholic. Settings that aim to be non-sectarian are set up as community provision.

Why do you need to know about laws?

As an early years practitioner, you are expected to know and understand the practical implications of the legislation for your work. You are not expected to read original law documents, nor understand every single detail.

The laws described briefly in this section are what are called primary legislation. Laws are written in a precise way and do not usually show readily how practitioners would need to behave on a day by day basis in order to follow the legal requirements. Many laws have associated written volumes of guidance issued by the relevant government department. This guidance is expressed in more ordinary language and forms a basis for what practitioners must do within the services for children. For example:

  • The Children Act 1989 has several volumes of detailed guidance. Volume 2 is the most relevant to early years settings and is entitled Family support, daycare and educational provision for young children.
  • Some guidance is shorter, perhaps in booklet form. For example, the Health and Safety Executive has published a guide for employers on Violence at work. It is not compulsory for employers to follow this guidance. But by doing so employers could be confident that they were complying with the relevant health and safety legislation.

Good practice in the early years is not always tightly related to legislation. Sometimes what practitioners regard as good practice is established before there is any legal requirement. For instance, it has long been regarded as unacceptable in nurseries and pre-schools to hit children as a way of dealing with their behaviour. Although it became illegal to hit children in state schools as long ago as 1986, this requirement was only extended to early educational settings in 1998.

The welfare of children and their rights as young citizens

In the UK there are several key pieces of legislation that affect children’s overall welfare. The laws provide the framework for child protection, family matters and services for children judged to be ‘in need’. These are:

  • The Children Act 1989 for England and Wales
  • The Children (Scotland) Act 1995
  • The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

These laws have similarities but are not identical and, of course, operate within the social welfare and early years services of the different countries of the UK. In Scotland, there was an active attempt to build a greater recognition of children’s rights to be heard from the UN Convention.

Some key principles are common between these laws, for example:

  • The welfare of children must be the primary concern of services, practitioners and parents. The child’s own views and preferences must be sought and considered in any decision.
  • Parents have responsibilities towards their children, rather than rights over them.
  • Services are required to work in partnership with parents and to ensure that as far as possible children are enabled to stay within their family.
  • In the provision of services, local authorities must actively take into account the child and family’s racial origin, religious persuasion and cultural and linguistic background.
  • For the first time, children with disabilities were defined within the law as children in need and it was stated that services should be provided for them and their family.

These laws are of direct relevance to early years practitioners because of they: establish a system of regulation for the early years settings, other than those in the educational system

Registration and inspection


All the different types of provision are regulated through a process of registration and inspection. The main framework for the regulation of services has been set either by educational legislation for provision within the state education system or by the legislation for child welfare within the UK. The system works slightly differently throughout the UK but still reflects the care–education split in how the provision is viewed.

During 2001–2 the responsibility for the regulation of childcare provision in England, Wales and Scotland passed from the local authorities (social services) to newly established national bodies. National childcare standards have been set to replace the previous system in which local authorities set their standards following the guidance of the main Children Act legislation.


The Early Years Directorate (a division of the school’s inspectorate, Ofsted) has taken responsibility for the regulation of provision for children under eight years. The aim is that eventually, the same visit will cover the childcare standards and the inspection required for government funding of free early education places to three and four-year-olds. For the near future, the ‘care’ and ‘education’ inspections will remain separate.

Nursery schools and classes that are part of the state education system are still inspected under educational legislation. Nursery provision in independent schools was left exempt from meeting the childcare standards, but proposals being discussed at the end of 2001 mean that these facilities may have to meet the requirements in the future.


The Care Standards Inspectorate has taken over the regulation of childcare and will apply the new national standards. The Welsh regulation and inspection procedures are similar but not identical to those in England. The aim is that the new Inspectorate and Schools Inspectorate work together.


The Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care has taken responsibility for the regulation of early years childcare settings. HM Inspectorate of Education will continue to carry out separate educational inspections and no change is foreseen in this split at the moment. The aim is that HM Inspectorate will work collaboratively with the Commission.

Northern Ireland

The social services inspect the non-school childcare settings for children under 12 years of age and the Department of Education covers the educational settings.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989

The Convention was the first international agreement in which the rights of children worldwide were detailed in one document. The UK signed the Convention in 1991 and this means that the central government, and the national assemblies, have to ensure that the laws and practice regarding children meet the standards established in the Convention. This Convention is important because it has, to a greater or lesser extent, influenced the drafting of some legislation and the focus on children’s rights has shaped the move to consulting with children about their everyday lives and changes.

The UN Convention is organised in a series of statements called articles, that describe the rights of children and young people up to the age of eighteen years.

Principles and values in working with children

The view of what makes up good practice in early years is not fixed and professional discussion should always allow for exploring new ideas and taking a fresh look at areas of practice and perspectives. A considered view of what is good practice tends to be a blend of:

  • The experience and accumulated wisdom of people who work with children and their families or who advise and consult in this area.
  • The application of new theoretical and research findings of children and what these imply for practice.
  • The requirements of the law and associated guidance for early years practitioners. The details of this source are in turn influenced by the two first points through the process of consultation and working committees when changes are proposed to laws and guidance.

The main principles underlying good practice are explored in much more detail throughout this book, so this section offers only a brief summary. The main issues are as follows.

A child-centred approach

Responsible and caring adults should:

    • enable children to enjoy their childhood
    • care for and care about children, showing respect and active consideration for the child as an individual
    • ensure the welfare and safety of each child without making children anxious about their well being or oppressed by over protection
    • enable young children to learn without pressure and to move towards their full potential
    • use the full range of learning opportunities in order to support children’s full development
    • use their adult skills, such as observation, to offer appropriate help to children and to appreciate what children can manage and are learning
    • behave as a responsible grown-up towards children: willing to tune into the perspective of children and to create boundaries where necessary
    • avoid using adult strength of words or action inappropriately or in a way that is oppressive of children.

Partnership with families

Early years practitioners share the care of children with their parents or other key carers, who are the children’s first and continuing carer and educator. Practitioners should:

    • work in partnership with parents, or other key family carers, as the continuity in children’s lives
    • respect parents as people with unique knowledge and expertise on their own children
    • respect the customs, values and spiritual beliefs of the child and family
    • respect and protect the confidentiality and privacy of a child or family, unless disclosure is required for the safety of the child.

Continued professional development

Initial training is important but early years professionals need to continue to learn and be open to new ideas and approaches. A positive approach is summed up by the idea of the reflective practitioner.

Effective early years practitioners need to be closely involved with the children; there needs to be activated and doing. However, good practice includes reflection as well as action. Being a reflective practitioner means being willing and able to:

    • Think over what has happened as well as become closely involved in activities with children.
    • Think about issues from more than one perspective, be open-minded and willing to continue to learn.
    • Acknowledge and recognise feelings: your own, those of the children and of other adults (colleagues and parents).
    • Accept that feelings shape events and can affect the sense that you are prepared to make of a situation.
    • Be actively involved, enthusiastic about the practice of being a practitioner.
    • Take an active part with children, which should bring in other aspects, like sharing feelings (excitement, puzzlement or disappointment when an activity does not go well) and thinking about issues.
    • Plan ahead, whilst being flexible for the possibilities of the moment and children’s interests. Useful plans all depend on applied adult thinking skills: what will the children learn, how will you recognise it?
    • Review activities and approaches – how has it gone, what have you learned, what do the children think and feel? Finding scope for improvement is not necessarily a criticism of what has gone before.

Anti-discriminatory practice


A key value in good early years practice is that you apply the anti-discriminatory practice in all aspects of your work. This area of good practice is often misunderstood, so this section describes the main ideas and ways in which principles can be put into daily practice.

What is anti-discriminatory practice?

The key issues in good practice are that early year’s teams:

  • actively seek to promote equal opportunities for all children and families with whom they work and come into contact
  • work to equalise opportunities for those children and families whose situation or group identity may place them at a disadvantage
  • promote respect and mutual understanding between children and families who see themselves as different from each other.

Of course, you and your colleagues can only address those issues that arise within your setting and your direct experience with children and families. However, this framework gives you substantial scope for positive anti-discriminatory practice. You are not responsible for what has happened in the past or elsewhere in the country or your neighbourhood. You are responsible, together with the children, for what happens within and directly around your setting.

Words matter, but it does not usually help good practice in this area if practitioners become too enmeshed in the ‘correct’ terms or phrases. In this book, the phrase anti-discriminatory practice is used to mean the active attempt to promote positive attitudes and behaviour and to challenge and change negative outlooks and actions. The phrase equal opportunities are very similar in meaning. It is used to mean the daily practice of ensuring that all children are enabled to have positive experiences in early years setting, to use the resources to the full and ensure that active steps are taken if, for some reason, children’s opportunities are being blocked.


Sources of diversity

Anti-discriminatory practice refers to all aspects of diversity and group identity; the principles do not only apply to ethnic group diversity.

Good early years practice is sensitive to the diversity of all kinds and practitioners need to be aware of diversity issues for children and adults in the areas of:

  • gender: boys and girls, men and women
  • ethnic group and culture
  • linguistic background
  • social class and family background, including different ways of running family life, for instance, travelling communities
  • religious faith and other family beliefs
  • disability and continuing health conditions.

Anti-discriminatory practice needs to be an integral part of all aspects of good practice in early years settings and services for children and their families. The anti-discriminatory practice applies to everyone; we all have a responsibility to consider our adult assumptions, extend our knowledge and promote equal opportunities. It is no more acceptable that girls are offensive to boys on the basis of sex than the other way around. Children who have experienced offensive racial name-calling deserve support and action on their behalf. But their experiences do not make it alright, or less important, if they in their turn are deeply offensive, on racial or other grounds. The rules apply to everyone.

Children are in the process of learning, so you can make a difference and support them to learn positive attitudes towards others and help them to want to learn more about life experiences different from their own. You offer this effective support through what is sometimes called an anti-bias curriculum, in which you offer play materials and experiences from a wide range of sources, some of which are not to be seen in your local neighbourhood. You extend children’s horizons beyond their own backyard. Anti-discriminatory practice within an early years curriculum also seeks to remove and replace materials that may strengthen inaccurate assumptions or stereotypes about particular groups of people.

Stereotypes are simple, strongly held beliefs about the characteristics shared by individuals in an identified group, of any kind. Some stereotypes are clearly negative and can be identified as easily as restrictive and offensive. But apparent compliments are not really positive, if they limit individuality, for instance, children with chronic illness are not all ‘brave’ and children with Down’s syndrome do not all have a ‘sunny, loveable’ disposition.