Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Transferring ECEC to education: does it make a difference?

by Bronwen Cohen and Jennifer Wallace


Bronwen Cohen is an Honorary Professor of Social Policy and affiliated with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

Jennifer Wallace is Head of Policy at the Carnegie UK Trust.


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Two decades ago England, Scotland and Sweden moved responsibility for all early childhood education and care services (ECEC) and school-aged childcare(SACC) into education. These reforms and their consequences were examined in a cross-national study published in 2004: A New Deal for Children? Re-Forming Education and Care in England, Scotland and Sweden (Cohen, Moss, Petrie and Wallace, Policy Press, 2004). Our newly published article for the Routledge journal Early Years examines developments since then and considers whether our conclusions still stand.

In 2004, we found that the systems in the three countries were at very different stages when transferred into education. Sweden already had well-developed and well-resourced ECEC and SACC services all under the Ministry of Social Affairs, the former fully integrated with no childcare/education split and the latter usually part of whole day schools opening from around 7am to 6pm. By contrast, in England and Scotland, ECEC and SACC services had long been neglected, poorly resourced and fragmented with responsibilities divided between health and education ministries/departments, although, as in Sweden, with some local authority experiences in developing more integrated ECEC.

Reasons for the reforms also differed markedly. In Sweden the move reflected the importance attached to seeing ECEC as the initial stage of lifelong learning as well as the nature of its social democratic welfare regime. Transferring these services to education brought a preschool curriculum framework and integrated education for preschool teachers, free-time pedagogues and school teachers. For the UK’s new Labour government, maternal employment and tackling child poverty were the drivers, and integration with education was only partial. But we noted that Scotland’s ‘New Community Schools’ pilot and a new school building programme, and England’s extended schools, offered both countries the potential for reshaping the boundaries between education and care. And we speculated that a devolved Scotland might move away from England’s liberal welfare orientation towards a more Nordic or ‘social democratic’ regime.

So what did we find in 2017? We found continuing integration of ECEC and SACC into the education system in Sweden where access is now a universal entitlement for children over 12 months irrespective of parents’ employment and attendance is either free or very low cost. Concerns over protecting specific expertise and falling numbers of preschool teachers led to the integrated initial education system being dropped but substantial gains have been made in terms of improved child/ parental entitlement to early years provision, its affordability and access as well as enhanced status for the professions involved. Preschool heads now have the same status as school heads and whole-day schools have seen the evolution of multi-professional teams of preschool teachers, free time pedagogues and school teachers working together with mixed age groups of younger children.

In contrast, both England and Scotland have seen stalled integration and missed opportunities. Pre-existing structural and conceptual fault lines between ‘early education’ and ‘childcare’ continue. In Scotland, more radical visions and earlier prospects of New Community Schools delivering new relationships have not materialised. The Scottish Government has referred to not having ‘all the levers’: our study confirms the constraints on devolved administrations in developing substantially different policies when funding remains divided and decided at a national /federal level. In the UK, increased reliance on demand subsidies such as tax credits has reinforced the split between early education and childcare, weakened local authority leadership and made it more difficult to reshape the system. But we conclude here that the continuing divide in Scotland – where local authorities and their schools continue to be the major providers of early education- also reflects the absence in Scotland of any clear strategy to extend schools’ remit to the provision of ECEC and SACC. Sweden has shown the gains that can come from transferring responsibility for all ECEC into education whilst seeking to preserve its identity. England and Scotland have so far, after two decades, failed to realise these potential benefits. For both, it has been a case of more of the same, rather than taking a ‘Nordic’ turn.


Further details on the study findings can be found in:

Bronwen Cohen, Peter Moss, Pat Petrie and Jennifer Wallace (2018) ‘A New Deal for Children?’ – what happens next: a cross national study of transferring early education services into education.

Early Years, To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09575146.2018.1504753