Transforming the early years 1975 – 2005: a personal perspective. By Gillian Pugh

Dame Gillian Pugh was Director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children’s Bureau from 1986 – 1997 and Chief Executive of Coram from 1997 – 2005.  She was an adviser to the Department for Education from 1997 – 2010.


Services for young children in England in the 1970s were not a priority for government.  They were available to only a tiny proportion of children under five, provided largely by the private and voluntary sectors, and few early years workers were appropriately trained.  During the next two decades local authorities, practitioners and trainers began working together to create a more integrated approach to planning services, to devising a curriculum that responded to how young children learn, and to improving the qualifications and pay of those working in early years settings.  From 1997 the Labour government built on this work with an ambitious and transformative agenda, but despite very considerable progress was not able to create high quality and sustainable services for all our youngest children.

Early childhood services in the 1970s

Since the establishment of the first nursery school by Robert Owen in Scotland in 1816, the development of early education in the United Kingdom was, until recently, remarkable slow by comparison to much of mainland Europe.    Publicly funded education became compulsory from the age of five in 1870, but many children were admitted to school from the age of two.  Even with the introduction of some public day care centres during the 1914 – 1918 war, the predominant form of early education and care was state primary schools.  This lack of appropriate provision within schools led to two parallel developments during the second half of the twentieth century: on the one hand the emergence during the 1960s of the voluntary sector playgroup movement; and on the other the growth of full day care to meet the needs of working parents, initially through childminding and, since the 1990s, of private day nurseries.

Services for young children in England in the 1970s were not a priority for government.  By comparison to many of our European neighbours, there was little public funding for children before the age of five, when they started school.    Different government departments were responsible for different forms of provision, and for none of them was it a priority.  The Department of Education, responsible for schools for children from the age of five, oversaw a small number of nursery schools, and nursery classes in some primary schools, taking children aged three and four.  Rather more three and four year olds were going early into reception classes in primary schools, often inappropriate to the developmental needs of such young children.  The Department of Health was overall responsible for registering playgroups, the small number of day nurseries run by local authorities for children deemed to be “in need”, and the growing number of private nurseries and childminders.  Curiously, the Home Office had responsibility for family policy.

At local level too there were multiple providers: local authority education, social services and leisure departments; health authorities; voluntary organisations; community groups; employers encouraging women to return to work; and private companies and individuals.   And not only this, the various settings had differing ideologies, with different aims and purposes, different opening hours, making different charges to parents, staffed by workers with different levels of training and different conditions and pay.  And it was often the poorest families that used the poorest quality provision.   Local authority nurseries were used for the children of families supported by social services as being “in need”; private day nurseries and childminders were used by children of working parents; and part time nursery education and playgroups were used by parents who could fit in with the limited hours on offer.

Table 1  Under fives in England: population and use of services 1975, 1985, 1990[i]

1975 1985 1990
Population 0 – 4        3,227,900 2,973,400 3,189,400
Places per 100 children 0-4
–        LA day nurseries 0.8 1.0 0.9
–         Private registered nurseries 0.8 0.8 1.8
–         Childminders 2.6 4.7 6.4
Places per 100 children 3-4
–        Playgroups 23.3 33.8 33.2
Pupils as % of 3 and 4 year olds
–        Nursery schools and classes 10.0 22.5 24.5
–        Under fives in infant classes 18.9 20.7 21.6
–        Independent schools 2.1 2.5 3.2


As the 1970s moved into the 1980s and the demands grew for a better response to the needs of young children and their families, it became clear that there were many different views and voices joining the debate.   Was the emphasis to be on providing a better start for children –”nursery education” – as they entered formal school settings, or was it “day care” that was needed to enable parents to work, thus reducing the benefits bill and reducing poverty?  Was the driving motivation equal opportunities for women, or meeting the developmental needs of children?  Was the trigger for an increase in provision to be the value of intervening early to prevent or alleviate developmental delay, or reduce juvenile crime?  Could better services for young children provide a safety net and parenting education for vulnerable families?

The government of the day was not impressed by any of these arguments.  There was an abiding sense that young children were their parents’ responsibility before they start school and that day care was a private matter, to be purchased as one might a washing machine.  Successive Ministers claimed that there was no research on the effectiveness of early education, and the DES submission to the 1989 Education Select Committee argued that the private and voluntary sectors should take up the demand for expansion.   As Secretary of State Kenneth Clarke MP claimed in 1991 “Nursery education for all children is not a realistic prospect”.

There was a lack of understanding of child development and of how young children learn.  Young children were only playing, and they could do that at home.  And “anyone can teach young children – they don’t need qualifications”.

Early Childhood Unit, National Children’s Bureau

In 1986 the Department of Health, aware of the rising concern about the lack of provision for young children, established an Early Childhood Unit (initially called the Under Fives Unit) at the National Children’s Bureau, which I was appointed to direct.  The Unit’s remit was to raise awareness of the needs of young children, to improve policy and service provision for children across social services, health, education and the voluntary and private sectors; and to support the raising of professional standards of practice.  It sat well within the NCB’s approach of working across all professional disciplines with a focus on the needs of children; and of using research to improve both policy and practice.

The Unit’s first task was to establish the levels of early years provision, structures for coordination and levels of training in local authorities the UK.  The ensuing report (Pugh 1988), based on responses from 94% of local authorities, led to an extensive body of work across the country.  Support was provided for many authorities, some of whom – Strathclyde, Sheffield, Manchester, Islington and Southwark in the first instance – began to integrate all their services within the education department.  Working with representatives of all the main voluntary organisations in the early years sector, and with the statutory agencies (the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils) a policy document and framework for action was published – A Policy for young Children: a framework for action (Under Fives Unit 1989), accompanied by detailed costings for a comprehensive national child care service (Holtermann 1992).

As these developments were taking place at local level across the country, two key pieces of national legislation were passed which appeared to pull in different directions.  The 1989 Children Act, passed with cross-party support, was described at the time as the most important piece of legislation to impact on the lives of children. In addition to its main focus on the paramountcy of welfare of the child, the Act was the first major piece of legislation on services for under fives since 1948, giving local authorities a duty to provide for children in need, to register all day care provision for children under eight, and to review childminding and day care every three years.  Sadly the Act failed to establish a sound framework for developing a national and local policy on services for under fives, nor did it provide for increased expenditure on services or on training.

Whilst the Children Act was increasing the role of local authorities, the 1988 Education Reform Act was moving in the opposite direction.  The introduction of a National Curriculum for children from the age of five failed to recognise the developmental needs of children in early years services from a few months old to five.   And the introduction of local management of schools began what has become a steady decline in the role of local authorities.

Early Childhood Education Forum

Following on from its early collaborative ventures, in 1993 the Early Childhood Unit supported the establishment of the Early Childhood Education Forum (now called the Early Childhood Forum), which brought together all the national agencies in the early childhood field – statutory, voluntary and private – some 45 organisations by 1998.  In an attempt to avoid further “divide and rule” responses from government, the ECEF worked hard to speak with one voice. Its message was that early childhood care and education should offer children the same experiences, in response to their age and needs, whether they were with a childminder, in a day care centre, a voluntary sector playgroup or a nursery school or class.   ECEF’s policy message was that services had developed in response to political and economic factors rather than in response to the needs of children and their parents. ECEF agreed underpinning principles for early childhood education and care, and worked with practitioners across the country to develop and publish a curriculum for young children – Quality and Diversity in Early Learning (ECEF 1998) – based on research into young children’s development.

Concerned at the inappropriateness of teacher training for teachers planning to work with young children, and with the lack of progress on National Vocational Qualifications in child care and education, ECEF set up the Early Years Training Group, bringing together trainers from education and social work departments in universities, and trainers from the Preschool Playgroups Association and the National Childminding Association.  One initiative that began to herald some real progress was the establishment of the first early childhood studies degrees at Suffolk College and Bristol University, and by 1997 there were 15 such degree programmes (see Abbott and Pugh 1998).

The tide begins to turn

As early years practitioners, policy makers and researchers were beginning to work well together across the UK, the national educational establishment finally began to take note.  In 1989 Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker MP set up a committee of enquiry chair by Minister Angela Rumbold MP to look at the quality of educational experience offered to three and four year olds.   Recognising that “attitudes and behaviour patterns established during the first years of life are central to future educational social development” this was the first time the Department for Education had considered young children as learners, had outlined an appropriate curriculum for young children, and had examined the context of learning and the importance of well trained staff.  The report (DES 1990) was well received but was published on Christmas Eve and largely ignored by government.   There followed a flurry of reports from other national bodies – the Royal Society of Arts (Ball 1994), the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA 1991), and the Audit Commission (1996) amongst them, together with a report from the House of Commons Select Committee and the National Commission on Education.

The first chink in the government’s armour came in 1995 when, after years of saying there was no evidence on the effectiveness of early education, additional funding was announced for four year olds.  Prime Minister John Major was finally persuaded by the research from High/Scope in the US that for every $1 spent, $7 was saved, with a particular emphasis on reducing youth offending (Barnett 1996).  At a memorable meeting between 35 members of ECEF and Secretary of State Gillian Shephard MP, all members present argued for an appropriate nursery curriculum and nationally agreed standards to apply across all settings, with properly qualified staff knowledgeable about how young children learn, parental involvement and a common system of inspection. The government’s response was to create a market by introducing a pilot scheme in four local authorities of vouchers for parents to enable them to buy places for their children.  This gave no funding for development of new provision, added a layer of bureaucracy and had a negative impact on the 85% of four year olds already infant schools.   There was considerable opposition to this scheme, but the election of a Labour government in 1997 put pay to vouchers and led to the first real expansion of early years provision.

A vision for the future

From my position as director of the Early Childhood Unit, and chair of the Early Childhood Education Forum, I began to promote the concept of a new type of service for young children, through discussions with politicians, talks at conferences, and publications, including a widely quoted article in the Times Education Supplement  (Pugh 1994).   My “vision for 2010” was underpinned by two important concepts – that early years education runs from birth to six or seven, and that the needs of young children for education, day care and health care are inseparable.  I envisaged an early childhood centre for children from birth to six attached to a community primary school, providing free nursery education for all children from three to six, with an extended day for working parents, for children under three, and after school clubs and holiday provision. There would be drop in facilities for parents and for childminders, good support and adult education for parents, and proper parental leave (it is sometimes easy to forget that there was minimal maternity leave and no paternity leave in 1994).  The health clinic next door facilitated the involvement of health visitors in the centre, and the psychologists, paediatricians, speech therapists and physiotherapists would be on hand to work with the children with special educational needs and disabilities who would be fully integrated into the centre.  The curriculum would be based on children’s social and emotional as well as their cognitive and physical needs.  The staff were appropriately trained, and adult:child ratios were based on double the age of the child (ie. 1:4 for two year olds).

These proposals may not seem so visionary today, but it is a mark of how much progress has been made – despite recent cutbacks – that this was far from the reality of the 1990s.

A new government, a new agenda

For the new Labour government, elected in May 1997, children, and in particular a commitment to reducing child poverty, were high on the agenda of both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.    The Treasury immediately set up a cross-departmental spending review on services for children under eight, organising a series of seminars addressed by researchers and practitioners in the field.  There were plans not only to increase the funding for early years provision, but to change its nature and the way in which services were delivered.  The immediate outcome was the National Childcare Strategy, published in 1998, and the Sure Start programme also established in 1998, about which Naomi Eisenstadt writes elsewhere in this journal.   Writing in 2000, I noted the very considerable investment and commitment in the first three years of the new government (Pugh 2001)

  • The National Childcare Strategy, bringing an additional £470 million to expand and improve childcare services for children from birth to three years, and out of school provision for children under 14 years
  • The establishment of the Sure Start initiative, bringing £1.4 billion to 250 (later extended to 500) high-need communities to develop services for children under four and their parents over a five year period
  • Increased expenditure of nursery education, with a place for all four year olds and for all three years olds by 2004 (these places to be in any of the wide range of types of provision)
  • Transference of responsibility for all children under the age of eight from the Department of Health to the Department for Education and Skills, with the DfES taking the lead on all issues concerning young children
  • The establishment of the Foundation Stage of early education, for children aged from three years to the end of reception. (This was later extended down to start from birth).
  • Working families tax credit, which provided £70 towards the cost of childcare for one child and £105 for two or more children for low income families
  • More family friendly policies in the workplace – improved parental leave and more flexible working arrangements
  • The introduction of Early Years Development and Childcare partnerships in local authorities
  • The establishment of the Early Excellence Centre pilot programme
  • The establishment of an Early Years National Training Organisation, and the production of a national qualifications and training framework for the early years
  • An integrated inspection service
  • A recognition that early years services must meet the needs of parents as well as children.

Whilst this level of investment would have been inconceivable in 1990, and the speed with which new developments were being implemented was breath-taking, there was still no national debate about what an early years policy should look like, no overall vision, and the various elements were still far from joined up.  Even though the DfES took on overall responsibility for services for young children, there were still divisions between “early years”, with a focus on universal part-time  nursery education for three and four year olds; “childcare”, seen as a fee paying  service in response to parental employment; and Sure Start, a community based services for children under four as part of the anti-poverty strategy.    The opportunity for a more radical reform of a confused patchwork of services was missed.

Multi-agency early years centres

In parallel with the slow movement towards a more joined up policy for young children at government level, there were some interesting attempts to create multi-agency centres.that met the needs of children and families in local neighbourhoods.  The first “combined nursery centre” opened in Hillfields in Coventry in 1971, bringing together funding from education, social services and health to provide care and education for children under five and support and access to further education for their parents.  Ten such centres, including Pen Green in Corby and Dorothy Gardner in London, were described by Virginia Makins in Not Just a Nursery… published in 1997.  Whilst enthusiastically described by the parents who used them, for their responsiveness to their needs and the quality of the children’s experiences, the challenges in working across agency boundaries perhaps explains why there were so few across the country.  Differences in funding streams, different pay and conditions for staff from different agencies, and lack of coordinated planning at central and local government level proved too much for many who wished to follow suit.

The announcement of the Early Excellence Centre pilot programme in 1998 gave the development of more flexible and responsive services a much needed boost, building as it did on those centres that were already up and running.   The early excellence centres were expected to provide high quality integrated education and care services; access to extended day and holiday schemes; support for families, including parenting education; links to community health services; accessible and affordable adult training opportunities, and support for other early years providers in the local area.  Early evidence showed that the centres had substantial benefits for children, families and the wider community, through the bringing together of a range of services that met families’ needs without the stigma associated with specialist provision (Bertram et al 2002).   Looking back on the “vision” for early childhood units being based in primary schools, however, few of the centres were based in primary schools, and neither did they always link as closely as they might have done with emerging Sure Start schemes.

The Thomas Coram Early Excellence Centre, based in the Coram Community Campus in the Kings Cross area of London is one such example.  The centre worked with 600 local families in the most deprived ward of Camden, offering a one stop shop in partnership with the local education and social service departments, the health authority and five voluntary organisations.   An early evaluation of this centre (Wigfall and Moss 2001) pointed to the value of the multi-agency approach and the sharing of skills, but also to the challenges of bringing so many services together.

A common approach to how and what young children learn

Despite the arguments in the Rumbold Report (above) of the importance of the context of learning and the context within which children acquire the disposition to learn, there were widespread concerns at the end of the 1990s that the National Curriculum and the national literacy and numeracy strategies were leading to pressure to formalize education at the earliest opportunity.  It was therefore with some enthusiasm that a working party of early years experts developed the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (QCA 2000) which provided a clear and unambiguous statement of the principles should underpin both learning and teaching.  The guidance argued that an effective curriculum builds on what children can already do and includes opportunities for them to engage in activities planned by adults as well as those they initiate themselves, learning through play, talk and direct experience.  This guidance, and the later Birth to Three Matters (DfES 2003) were well received, and were later revised as Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfES 2007) which included both these frameworks, together with national standards for day care and childminding.

At last all early years settings, both “care” and “education”, were expected to adhere to the same standards for learning, development and care, and would only receive government funding if they did so.

Underpinned by research

From the 1997 Treasury-led cross departmental review onwards the Labour government’s early years programme was clearly informed by research evidence.  Sylva and Pugh (2005) pointed to two lines of research which explain why early learning is important: studies on the development of the brain, suggesting that early learning contributes to the brain’s developing architecture, and developmental psychology showing the importance of early interactions between the young child and caregivers.  The neurological research confirms the importance of learning in the early years, whereas the psychological studies suggest which kind of learning is best.  Following the US evidence cited above from the High/Scope project, the government invested in the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, a large-scale longitudinal research study on effective early education.  The EPPE project was hugely influential in demonstrating the positive effects of high quality preschool provision on children’s intellectual and social behavioural development up to the end of Key Stage 1, and indicated that preschool can play an important part in combating social exclusion for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  These findings, together with those on the importance of quality (the highest quality was found in settings in the maintained sector which integrated care and education), well trained staff and the ongoing importance of the home environment, were all influential in the development of practice (through the work on curriculum and training) as well as policy (Sylva et al 2010).  The study was subsequently extended to follow the children into secondary school.

Every Child Matters and the 2004 Children Act

This review of the thirty years between 1975 and 2005 would not be complete with brief reference to the Labour government’s flagship policy, Every Child Matters.  The publication in 2003 of the Green Paper Every Child Matters (DfES 2003) was described by the Prime Minister at its launch as the most significant development for children in over 30 years.    Initially planned as a response the Laming report on the circumstances surrounding the death of Victoria Climbie in 2002, the initial government remit was to focus on children at risk. But after discussion with many working in the field, particularly those who had been working on the early years policy developments,  the report took prevention as its starting point and accepted the view that to support all children through well co-ordinated mainstream services was more likely to benefit those in need and at risk than a separate child protection service.  The five key themes of Every Child Matters were

  • A strong foundation in the early years
  • A stronger focus on parenting and families
  • Earlier interventions and effective protection
  • Better accountability and integration locally, regionally and nationally
  • Reform of the workforce.

The overall aim, and of the subsequent 2004 Children Act which created the legal framework, was to improve outcomes for all children and to narrow the gap between those who do well and those who do not, through reconfiguring services around children and families.  All children were to be entitled to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and enjoy economic well-being.

The ambitious long term vision emerging through the 2004 Children Act and the implementation paper Every Child Matters: Change for Children (DfES 2004) was the development of integrated education, health and social care through children’s centres, extended schools and improved services for children and their parents, provided by better qualified staff.    At central government level responsibility for most services were brought with the Department for Education (renamed the Department for Children, Schools and Families) under the direction of a Minister for Children.  At local level the directors for social services and education were replaced by a director for children’s services, and an integrated mechanism for planning and delivering services was established – a Children’s Trust.  There would also be a common assessment framework, an integrated workforce strategy, a common core of training and integrated inspection framework.   It was a huge and ambitious agenda.

So near… and yet so far

Reviewing  progress in 2005 (Pugh 2006, Sylva and Pugh 2005) it was clear that, since the election of a Labour government in 1997,  there had been substantial investment in services for young children and their families, some of it universal and some targeted at the most disadvantaged communities.  Fifteen hours of nursery education during school terms was now available to all three and four year olds, and the importance of the early years and of joined up working across health, social care and education was now firmly on the map.  Sure Start centres for parents and children under three were widely welcomed in 520 communities, 107 “early excellence centres” had been established and 1400 neighbourhood nurseries were being established, though some had already closed.    In 2003 the government launched a “children’s centre” programme, building on early excellence centres and neighbourhood nurseries through a promise of a centre in the 20% most disadvantaged communities.   The Foundation Stage curriculum had been well received and enthusiastically adopted by early years professionals in all early years settings, based as it was on clear principles and on the central importance of learning through play (Aubrey 2004).

Early years services were now central to local and national planning for children, and were informed by research, and evaluation studies pointed to the effectiveness of many new initiatives.   There was a growing emphasis on listening to children’s views.  There was a commitment to upskilling the workforce, with the establishment in 2005 of the Children’s Workforce Development Council.   Indeed, in 2004 the OECD commended England for the “tremendous progress” it had made.

But yet, despite the commitment of the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Chancellor Gordon Brown to reducing child poverty, largely through enabling more parents to return to work, parents still made the major financial contribution to the cost of care, paying for private nurseries or childminders to suit their working hours, plus before and after school and holiday provision.  There was low take up of working tax credit, intended to assist low income families with childcare costs, and with local authorities unable to subsidise places, nurseries were often forced to close as they failed to cover their costs.

Although the quality of the workforce is key to the effectiveness of early education, in 2005 only 50% of staff in day nurseries were qualified to NVQ level 3, and all were likely to be poorly paid.  There were fraught discussions about how the proposed new “early years professional” qualification compared with qualified teacher status, and many of the teachers in nursery or reception classes were not appropriately trained to work with young children.  So whilst the new curriculum developments were welcomed, a professionally trained and well paid workforce was still a distant dream.

And finally, what of the long term vision for an integrated and well-funded early years service?  Government documents in 2004 couldn’t quite decide what to call it, referring variously to nursery education, day care, childcare, early years services, the foundation stage and early education.  It was still work in progress, and sadly much was to be dismantled in the austerity years that followed.


Abbott L and Pugh G (1998) Training to Work in the Early Years: developing the climbing frame  Buckingham: Open University

Association of Metropolitan Authorities (1991) Children First London AMA

Aubrey C (2004) “Implementing the foundation stage in reception classes” British Educational Research Journal 30, 5 633-656

Audit Commission (1996) Counting to Five London: Audit Commission

Ball, Christopher (1994) Start Right: the importance of early learning London: Royal Society of Arts

Barnett W S (1996) “Lives in the balance: Age-27 benefit cost analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Programme” Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation 11 Ypsilanti:High/Scope Press

Bertram T et al (2002) “Early Excellence Centre pilot programme”,  DfES Research Brief 361

Department of Education and Science (1990) Starting with Quality: report of the committee of inquiry into the educational experiences offered to 3- and 4-year olds (Rumbold Report) London HMSO

Department for Education and Skills (2002) Birth to Three Matters London: HMSO

Department for Education and Skills (2003) Every Child Matters Norwich TSO

Department for Education and Skills (2004) Every Child Matters: Change for Children Nottingham DfES  Publications

Department for Education and Skills (2007) Early Years Foundation Stage Nottingham: DfES

Holtermann, S (1992) Investing in Young Children: costing an education and day care service  London; National Children’s Bureau

Makins V (1997) Not Just a Nursery: multi-agency early years centres in action London: National Children’s Bureau

Pugh G (1988) Services for Under Fives: developing a coordinated approach London: National Children’s Bureau

Pugh G (1994) “Born to learn: a vision for 2010” Times Educational Supplement  November

Pugh G (2001) “A policy for early childhood services?” in Pugh G (ed) Contemporary Issues in the Early Years Third edition London: Paul Chapman Publishing

Pugh, Gillian (2006) “The policy agenda for early childhood services” in Pugh G and Duffy B (ed) Contemporary Issues in the Early Years Fourth edition, London: Sage

Sylva K and Pugh G (2005) “Transforming the early years in England” Oxford Review of Education, 31,1, 11-27

QCA (2000) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage London: QCA/DfEE

Sylva K, Melhuish E, Sammons P, Siraj-Blatchford I , Taggart B (2010) Early Childhood Matters: evidence from the Effective Pre-School and Primary Education Project  London: Routledge

Wigfall V and Moss P (2001) More than the Sum of its Parts; a study of a multi-agency childcare network London: National Children’s Bureau

[i] Source: Early Childhood Unit Statistics 1991, compiled from government sources






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