In October 2018, the Lawson Foundation invited Henry Mathias, Head of Professional Practice and Standards with the Care Inspectorate in Scotland to give the keynote address at its Outdoor Play and Early Learning Policy Research Symposium. Henry shared Scotland’s journey to improve children’s experiences of outdoor play in registered early learning and childcare services and how regulation had changed to contribute to this. During his two-week trip Henry met many of the movers and shakers developing outdoor play in Canada, and he visited a range of child care and outdoor play programs. Lawson Foundation Program Director Christine Alden interviewed Henry about his reflections on his experience in Canada.
Christine: What were your impressions of Canada?
Henry: I had visited the United States several times, but this was my first trip to Canada and I was immediately struck by the resonance with Scotland. Not just the history, the place names and all the deep family connections, but compared to the US, the language, the cultural mood, and the music were generally much more familiar.
Christine: What were your impressions of Early Childhood Education (ECE) in Canada?
Henry: For early learning and childcare, there was less open commercialization than in the US and the UK, and a generally more child-centred, pedagogical approach than in Scotland. There was much positive affirmation of the role of Indigenous traditions and the natural world in early learning and childcare programmes and the way that practitioners engaged with children. I observed children being cared for with great dollops of positivity, kindness, openness and respect for difference. I liked the holistic term ‘Early Childhood Educators’ used to describe trained professionals working in early learning and childcare.
Christine: What struck you as different between ECE in Scotland and Canada?
Henry: Regarding regulatory practice in Canada, it was like stepping back in time and returning to a model based on compliance with prescriptive rules. There is significant structural distance between the regulator and the regulated in Canada, with relatively little partnership working or improvement activity with providers and a lack of trust and fear of statutory regulation across the early learning and childcare sector. For example, the fixed rules-based approach was illustrated by the blanket bans on any fires in programs, prescribed outdoor play equipment and the rigid application of ratios regarding staff numbers and qualifications. There were also no registered forest schools and I struggled to see how they could become registered under their current system. Providers shared stories with me of cat-and-mouse games with the regulator, intimidating tactics and inspectors not having any early years background, which was a blast from the past!
Christine: You sound surprised….
Henry: I was surprised by a lot of this, as much of the cultural signalling had led me to expect Canada to be more flexible and proportionate in its regulatory approach. Similarly, given the quantity and quality of the natural environment and its outdoor heritage, I was expecting Canada to be less risk averse to outdoor activities and forest schools. I had not appreciated the extent to which Canada mirrors the US, with a relatively small state regulator, powerful corporate interests in the setting of playground standards, and a strong fear of litigation. The free market, Anglo-Saxon model was exemplified by the limited scope of licensed provision, with a lot of childcare being completely unregulated, including childminding.
Christine: How would you describe the culture and practice of child care regulation in Scotland today? Is there a concrete example of this that you could share?
Henry: I think we’ve generally become less rules-based and prescriptive and more reasonable and proportionate in our approach. For example, when checking outdoor play, rather than just checking provider inputs regarding playground health and safety, staffing levels, written risk assessments and accident records, we now give more emphasis on the quality of children’s experiences outdoors. Inspectors now spend more time observing children outside and ask questions like how rich are children’s experiences of outdoor play here, how engaged are staff and are they helping the children direct and extend their play outdoors? With one of the Standards stating that children should have the opportunity to regularly explore a completely natural environment, inspectors will now assess the quality of children’s play in their local patch such as the woods or beach.
Focussing on assessing the impact a service is having on children’s outcomes rather than a set of prescriptive inputs, which may or may not indicate high quality experiences, has been welcomed by the sector. Looking at children’s actual experiences rather than a set of proxy indicators has made for a more meaningful and worthwhile inspection for everyone involved, with regulators and regulated finding more common ground.
Christine: How did Scotland evolve from strict compliance to a new model of trusting and supporting educators?
Henry: It evolved over time rather than a sudden change. Across the public domain in Scotland there has been a shift to from numerical inputs to outcome-based measures of quality, so we are part of this national trend. Replacing the old prescriptive standards with the new Health and Social Care Standards, all written from the perspective of an individual child and describing what good care looks like, helped us on this journey. We also found that compliance with the previous standards, which contained a prescriptive set of inputs, did not necessarily reflect the quality of children’s experience of the service.
Christine: The Lawson Foundation is taking a leadership role on advancing outdoor play and early childhood education. What struck you as effective about our approach? Do you have any advice for us?
Henry: My advice is to keep going! I was impressed by how effectively you curated the symposium, bringing together academics, insurance companies and equipment manufacturers alongside regulators, policy makers and providers. The delegates had been purposefully selected in advance in order to harness diverse professional backgrounds for the greatest leverage. I would also advise promoting blended forms of outdoor schools, which children access on some days of the week, rather than focussing exclusively on ‘full immersion’ forest schools. At this stage, forest kindergartens in the Nordic tradition can be a step too far for some parents (and regulators!) and can put people off engaging with less purist models.
Christine: And finally, what’s one question you’re still holding after your experience in Canada and at our symposium? Is there something you’re still reflecting on, or are curious to learn more about?
Henry: I want to find out more about how the outdoor play movement, pedagogy and indigenous cultures blend in the development of early childhood practice in Canada.
Henry Mathias started work as a full-time dad, then established a successful childcare business before becoming an early years inspector. A qualified social worker with an MSc in Social Work Management, Henry has a wealth of experience regulating and improving care. In his early years leadership role, he has been influential in changing the culture of regulation from measuring compliance with provider inputs to assessing and improving experiences of children. He played a leadership role in producing ‘My World Outdoors’ a good practice resource promoting outdoor play as part of the Care Inspectorate’s aim to improve as well as regulate services. Henry led the recent review of the Standards, which has resulted in Scotland’s radical integrated Health and Social Care Standards.
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