Many providers in Scotland currently deliver excellent services, but we need to ensure that provision across the sector delivers a first-class learning and nurturing environment for all children and families. Perhaps we should think less in terms of 'care' and more in terms of 'participatory learning'. If you look at the policy approach taken in Sweden, or the Te Whāriki statement in New Zealand, they respectively see a well-designed and socioculturally based national pre-school curriculum as the most important element in their pre-school system. Their approach is not just about feeding and watching children. It is based on research which indicates that the brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills, and emotional control all peak before the age of four and that the best way to support children’s development is by enabling creative learning relationships. Early years education is seen as vital, as is continuity between early years and primary school education.
The presence of an early years 'curriculum' does not mean that early years learning should become overly formalised. Rather early years education should be a relaxed, nurturing, and respectful environment based on play and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Indeed, many providers currently promote a child-led approach utilising local outdoor environments as a source of learning. Indoors, the learning environment should be 'home-like' with the emphasis being fun and happiness—a 'compliment to the home'. Crucially there is no formal assessment or evaluation of the individual child (though there is evaluation of the processes and dialogues used). The emphasis is on relationships, social skills, and the needs of the individual. It is predicated on a mission of 'what would you like to do?’, but not ‘how to do it', with children and teachers encouraged to come up with their own methods through participation and collaboration. In New Zealand, the emphasis is on the learning partnership between teachers, parents, child, and cultural context. In Sweden they spend half the day outside (even in the winter), exercise is very important, and before the age of seven literacy and writing skills aren't pushed—yet these children end up with the best literacy skills in Europe. Food is healthy and fresh, and staff are treated as professionals. We can have a childcare service like this in Scotland.