Winnicott (cited in Spelman, 2013) is perhaps more renowned in the field of early years development for his transitional object theory that expanded on Bowlby’s (cited in Harris, 2011) school of thought on how, when and why children attach to certain key people in their childhood. For the purpose of this discussion, Winnicott’s (1953) other well-known ‘good enough mother’ theory will be examined in line with the recent changes that those working in the early years sector and schools have had to make in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Winnicott’s teachings boiled down to the fact that a ‘good enough mother’ was better than the perfect mother.
According to Hoghughla’s (1998) paper which by the way, used the more equal and contemporary term parent instead of mother, supported Winnicott’s view that it is unhelpful and unrealistic to demand perfection of parents, and to do so undermines the efforts of the vast majority of parents who are in all practical respects “good enough” to meet their children’s needs. This raises the question why some early years practitioners and teachers are held so much more to account by some parents, when by law they are both equal partners under the Children’s Act (1989). Head teachers have had to go from running an ordinary school, to organising a virtual school, a childcare centre and a food delivery service (McInerney, 2020) in the space of just two days that replicates aspects of the parent’s roles in the home. This incredible, almost heroic adjustment could only be driven by the attachment and love; yes, I really mean the L word, that Head teachers, teachers, teaching assistants, Early Years practitioners, SENCO’s and support staff have for the children in their care. There are not many professions that have had to amend their work practices due to the current pandemic to such an incredible extent, in such an emotional context.
This current situation takes the statutory practice outlined in the Children’s Act (1989), of ‘loco parentis’ (Legislation.gov.uk. 2020) to another level. Who could have envisaged when writing this Act that a situation would arise such as the Covid-19 Pandemic, that placed those working in early years and schools with such a shared parental responsibility? Under this law, teachers have a duty of care towards their pupils and must behave, as any ‘reasonable parent’ would do in promoting the welfare and safety of children in their care. This section of the Children’s Act (1989) generated much debate in the field of early childhood development at the time and further research was carried into what intervention programmes settings could realistically use to improve their engagement with parents. Past intervention programmes had instead emphasised the role of the professional in educating the parents. Parents were just seen as ‘teaching agents’, carrying out the advice of the teacher/professional in accordance with Cunningham & Davis’s (1985) expert model of parental partnership working.
From a European perspective, Hujala et al (2009) argue that whilst parents are seen as important, some cultures view teachers in a much higher regard and would not consider the notion that schools should also be places for health and social care requirements to take place, alongside education. This is in stark contrast to our more holistic approach that can potentially place all of the child’s educational needs, SEND, mental health concerns and child protection issues at the door of the setting. Pascal, (2018) would argue though that this current challenge for ‘loco parentis’ early years practitioners and teachers, has already been further exasperated in recent times by the impact of austerity on children who were already disadvantaged. As far back as 2016, Sarah Brennan, the Chief Executive of Young Minds reported how government funding intended for CAMHS had been diverted by some authorities, into supporting other underfunded priorities in the NHS. Not all of our European neighbours have gone through such austerity measures, so they could be in a much better place to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on the children in their care. EURYDICE (2020) points out that the Finnish National Agency for Education does not provide instructions for matters related to health care, as that is the sole responsibility of Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare. In Finland a completely different government body decides if a nursery provider or school should isolate or place pupils in quarantine. Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin announced that daycare centres that provide early childhood provision for children up to the age of 7 would remain open (and funded), but urged parents who could keep their children at home to do so. In complete contrast to England’s approach, Finnish parents with jobs critical to the functioning of society who have children in grades 1-3 (7 years to 10 years old) can send their children to specially arranged care if needed. The Finnish focus is based purely on the health and care of the child in this moment in time, not an attempt to continue their education in what could be a virtually deserted school or early years setting. Hujala (2008) also points out how schooling in Finland is seen as a significant promoter of social equality, there is not the ‘state versus private’ education debate that exists in England. In fact, there are very few private schools in Finland, they are either faith-based or Steiner Schools, (Nicol & Taplin, 2017) that cannot under Finnish law charge tuition fees or use selective admissions procedures. This point is worth considering in light of the impact this pandemic could have on the children in our society. Every Finnish child and parent has equal access to well invested services regardless of their parents social and economical status. With our Early Years sector already at near breaking point prior to this outbreak, investment by the government for positive parental partnerships working is imperative if we are to really reach the children that may have been harmed more than others.
Our settings have already had to face up to the fact that some parents are “not good enough”(Winnicott, 1973) and quite often have to deal with the outcomes of child abuse and neglect. The team around the child at the setting is then core to setting up structures to support the child’s play, learning and development. This is a tall order in ordinary times. It is well documented that poor parenting, along with other factors such as poverty, (McIntosh, 2019) are detrimental in a small child’s life. Opel et al (2019) most recent study confirms that children are not only left with physical scars from abuse but also well-hidden emotional damage outlined by Nicholson et al (2018), that may not always manifest in the expected way or in an expected time period. It can reoccur as major depressive disorders in their adult life. This is where the ‘good enough loco parentis’ early years practitioner or teacher can make an incredible difference to the child’s outcomes in life with the right amount of government funding and support. Weare (2020) reports that nurseries and schools are often at the first stage of making safeguarding referrals, however with children confined at home during the Covid-19 crisis, they are not coming into contact with the loco parentis at the setting, who would normally raise a child protection concern. Weare (2020) also fears for children already known to be vulnerable in the setting as they become less visible. The government had hoped to keep them in emergency schools, making places available for them alongside children of key workers, but attendance so far has been very low, with as few as 5% turning up in some places. Would a separate social services/health care package have been more successful as in other countries? Is it too late to reconsider how these children can receive good enough parenting at such a crucial time in their small lives?
I hope this discussion has explored just how important the role of early years practitioners and teachers are in bridging the attachment and care gap with very few well-funded resources. I am very concerned as well where the other 95% of vulnerable children are at the moment? What processes do we have in place to bridge this widening gap and engage their parents? Once this is pandemic is over, they will return. It does not bear thinking about how they may have changed and what adversity they may have had to deal with during lockdown. To avoid a potential public health issue regarding mental health in the future, the government still has time to set up a more robust, well-funded, well-resourced PHSE curriculum that could tackle in a safe environment the impact on each child of Covid-19. Maybe a new ‘safe/care’ government agency could be funded that really meets the emotional, health and well being needs of every child, and of course their parents, in a timely manner. Finally, perhaps from a political perspective, there is also a call for the Department of Education to go back to its original name; the Department for Children, Schools and Families, (Gillard, 2018) that just by its very title encompassed the whole child and its family and the real work that educational settings do?
This blog was written by Maggie Crowley, who teaches on our Early Childhood courses.
Brennan, S. (2016) Children’s mental health funding not going where it should be. Available at; https://youngminds.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/children-s-mental-health-funding-not-going-where-it-should-be/. Access on 18th April 2020.
Cunningham, C & Davis, H. (1985). Working with Parents: Frameworks for Collaboration. London. Open University Press.
EURYDICE, (2020). Finland Overview. Key features of Education System. Available at; https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/finland_en. Accessed on 17th April 2020.
Gillard, D. (2018) Education in England: a history. Available at; http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter18.html. Accessed on 15th April 2020.
Harris, B (2011). Working with Distressed Young People. Exeter. Learning Matters Ltd.
Hoghughla, M (1998). Good enough parenting for all children-a strategy for a healthier society. BMJ Publishing Group. Available at; https://adc.bmj.com/content/78/4/293. Accessed on 12th April 2020.
Hujala,E. (2008) The Development of Early Childhood as an Academic Discipline in Finland. Nordic Early Childhood Education Research. Vol. 1, no. 1
Hujala, E. Turja, L. Gaspar, MF. Veisson, M & Wanigananayake, M. (2009). Perspectives of early childhood teachers on parental partnerships in five European countries. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. Vol 17. Issue 1. Pp 57-76.
Legislation Gov.Uk (2020) Children’s Act (1989). Available at; http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/contents. Accessed on 14th April 2020.
McInerney, L. (2020). “Education was never schools sole focus. The coronavirus pandemic has proved that””. Available at; https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/14/education-was-never-the-sole-focus-of-schools-the-coronavirus-pandemic-has-proved-it. Accessed on 14th April 2020.
McIntosh, S. (2019) Cited in House of Commons Education Committee. Tackling disadvantage in the Early Years. Available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmeduc/1006/1006.pdf. Accessed on 11th April 2020.
Nicholson, J. Perez, L & Kurtz, J (2018). Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators: Relationship-Based Approaches that Support Healing and Build Resilience in Young Children. Oxon. Routledge.
Nicol, J & Taplin, J.T. (2017) Understanding the Steiner Waldorf Approach: Early Years Education. London. Routledge.
Opel, N et al (2019). Mediation of the influence of childhood maltreatment on depression relapse by cortical structure: a 2-year longitudinal observational study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 6 (4): 318.
Pascal, C. (2018). Austerity and its Impact on Early Years Informal and Family Learning in Disadvantaged Urban Communities. Available at; https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/projects/uk-international-challenges-17-austerity-and-its-impact-early-years-informal-and-family-learning-disadvantaged-urban-communities. Accessed on 16th April 2020.
Spelman, M. (2013). The Evolution of Winnicott’s Thinking: Examining the Growth of Psychoanalytic Thought Over Three Generations. London. Karnac Books.
Weare, S. (2020) Fears for child welfare as protection referrals plummet in England. Available at; https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/08/fears-for-child-welfare-as-protection-referrals-plummet-in-england. Accessed on 8th April 2020.