Children in Wales are required to begin school at age 5. Although parents have no legal obligation to put their children into forms of education before this age, it is widely accepted that pre-school education has a positive impact on children’s cognitive and social development. Pre-school education is therefore universally popular and local authorities in Wales are required to ensure that all 3 to 4 year old children can access a minimum of ten free hours a week of early years education.
At present, this free pre-school education in Wales is provided by a myriad of venues and settings. The array of different pre-school settings and childcare providers can often be confusing (even for researchers!), so it’s worth clarifying the different forms of pre-school education available to parents before I explain exactly what my research is all about.
Nurseries or nursery schools are schools in their own right, which take children from age 3-5. Some nursery schools are run and funded by local authorities (‘maintained’) or privately (‘non-maintained’). In many nursery settings, nursery provision is organized in the traditional form of mornings or afternoon sessions. Sessions normally last 2.5 hours. Morning sessions typically last from 9am until 11 or 11.30am, whilst afternoon sessions typically last from 1pm until 3 or 3.30pm. Children can access their ten hours entitlement within the parameters of this organization, although generally they may not stay all day in nurseries, and nurseries do not typically offer wrap around care (i.e. care before and after the sessions)
In addition to these standalone nursery schools, many primary schools in Wales have nursery classes, which are separate units within their infants’ schools. Provision here is usually the same as in nursery schools (that is, mornings or afternoons only). The alternative to these form of pre-school education are private day nurseries. These settings typically open early in the morning until the evening, and take children from birth to 5 years of age. Parents may take their ten hours entitlement in these private day nurseries. Playgroups are settings which are often run by community or voluntary groups. They take children from 2 years of age and sessions are typically the same as in nursery schools or classes.
Ok, so what’s the problem? It has been suggested that the current way pre-school education is organized in Wales is inflexible and ultimately inconvenient for parents. There is a fear in particular that some parents may find the system so inconvenient that they actually withhold their children from pre-school education completely, or children may only be accessing part of their ten hours entitlement. Ultimately then, children may not be able to receive the full educational benefits of pre-school that they are entitled to.
In response to these fears, the Welsh Government is keen to explore ways to increase the flexibility of pre-school provision with the overarching aim of increasing children’s participation in early years education. In 2013, the Welsh Government invited local authorities in Wales to participate in pilot schemes to test out how pre-school education can be made more flexible. Local authorities were given the freedom to design forms of flexibility which responded to the specific needs and issues within their area. 4 local authorities eventually participated:
- Neath Port Talbot
Each local authority came up with different strategies to improve flexibility in their respective region. The different forms of flexibility in each local authority reflected the different needs and demands within each area.
WISERD was commissioned by the Welsh Government to evaluate the implementation and impact of these flexibility pilots. My job as a researcher is to assess how these forms of flexibility have impacted on parents, staff and settings, and finally on the children themselves.
Our research was comprised of two elements. The first was case study visits to schools and settings across the 4 local authorities.
This element of the research was extremely interesting and relatively familiar to me since I conducted a significant amount of research in schools for my PhD. Nonetheless, I was confidently (and patiently) led through the first few research visits by my colleague Dr Mirain Rhys, who helpfully introduced me to my role before she departed for a round the world trip.
We interviewed head teachers and managers, teachers and support staff in each setting, getting their views on the flexibility pilot and how it impacted on their job. When we could, we also chatted to parents outside the school gates and asked them their thoughts on the pilots.
Doing fieldwork involves a lot of mundane but important rituals wherever you are. As a researcher you are pretty much constantly making notes, habitually checking that you have batteries for your dictaphone, constantly re-reading policy documents, and so on. Doing fieldwork in schools, however, involves a few unique quirks. For one, young children love visitors, and no matter how inconspicuous I tried to make myself in the classroom, they would come up and chat to me, ask me how I was, and often offer me a (make believe) cup of tea, some food or other gifts. Other times I would be invited to play or proudly and solemnly given a tour of the classroom. Over the course of my time in the schools my legs gradually got used to sitting on tiny chairs. A lot of the time was spent laughing to myself in the corner at the children’s antics and questions.
Ultimately the fieldwork in schools was incredibly interesting. Teachers were very welcoming and tolerant of me being in their classrooms and always made the time to chat despite their hectic schedules. Over the course of the research I have periodically had to phone these same teachers and managers and ask them to clarify certain points about the flexibility scheme, or to get updates on the scheme. Again my intrusions have always been met with warmth and enthusiasm.
The next phase of the research was to speak to parents. Although I had previously handed out surveys through the schools and chatted to parents at the school gates, our main strategy was to contact parents directly via telephone and conduct more in depth discussions to find out their views on the pilot.
I approached this element of the fieldwork with some trepidation, for I worked in call centres for two unhappy years in a previous life, and subsequently developed something of a phobia of phones.
Facing my fear, I put on my best ‘phone manner’ and embarked on the phone interviews. Of course, I needn’t have worried, because all the parents I spoke to were friendly and engaging and very keen to discuss the pilots. The phone interviews were fascinating and revealed the sheer diversity of family life across Wales and how different parents and households had different working patterns, daily routines and childcare arrangements. The diversity of families means that some parents face different pressures to others, and some parents ultimately have different needs.
The challenge for me as a researcher is to collate and present all this data in a coherent way. This involves listening and re-listening to my interview recordings (which is hard for someone who doesn’t like the sound of their own voice), and trying to pick out common themes which emerge from these and also picking out issues which may be unique to each region, to particular types of school, or to certain groups of parents, for example.
At the time of writing I am putting the finishing touches to an interim report on the flexibility pilots, which will eventually be presented to representatives in the Welsh Government.
About the author: Dr Dan Evans is a Research Assistant at WISERD, based at Cardiff University. He works across three main educational research projects: the evaluation of Foundation Phase Flexibility Pilots; the impact of the Pupil Deprivation Grant on schools in Wales; and the WISERD Education longitudinal cohort study.