Childcare – The History of Morton Michel


Childcare - Morton Michel Childcare & Our History

It has been sixty years since Morton Michel arranged insurance for our first client. Since then, the childcare sector has transformed more than once, so we decided now would be a good time to take a quick look back at what has changed.

Of course, a whole book could be written on this subject, and doubtless this article will leave out many crucial developments, but hopefully it offers some insight into how far the sector has come.

1945 – 1964

Nursery schools offering sessional preschool education had existed since at least the 1920s and were expanded during the Second World War as women took mens’ places in the factories and workplaces. However, after the war, there was a growing expectation for mothers to take on sole responsibility for childcare, and local authorities were prevented from opening new nursery schools.

However, change was still coming and by the 1960s demand for nurseries was rising for two reasons. Firstly, mothers increasingly wanted to re-enter the workplace too, but also, the importance of early years education was starting to be recognised. By 1964, the Plowden Review found that some nurseries had twice as many children on their waiting lists as they had spaces!

Unsurprisingly then, it was at this point that Morton Michel opened, creating the UK’s first ever dedicated insurance scheme for prechools.

1964 – 1974

Attitudes were now beginning to change. The Plowden Review, which was published in 1967, recommended for the first time that all children should have some access to early years childcare. However, to balance concerns that young children should not spend too long away from their mothers, the care was recommended to be sessional. The exception to this was ‘day nurseries’ which at the time came under the Ministry of Health rather than education and were intended to look after children’s physical welfare if their mother could not, usually due to being obliged to work. Ultimately, the report anticipated that just 15% of children would need to attend full time.

Even so, a movement had started. Across the next ten years, the popularity of preschool education continued to grow. By the 1970s, the Playgroup Movement, as it became known, had grown in strength, with over 4,000 settings registered across the country under an amendment to the Nursery and Child Minders Act 1948. This exponential expansion was driven by mothers setting up provision where there was none before. Observers at the time noted that this movement was at its heart child-centric, driven by mothers’ understanding of their children’s needs, and the importance of learning through play.

As the needs of the sector changed, so did we. In 1971 we launched our Childminder, Holiday Play and Group policies.

1974 – 1984

While the Playgroup Movement continued to grow in strength, a wider debate was occurring. It was beginning to be recognised that the state had not done enough to support early years childcare. However despite support in some quarters for more maintained nursery schools, others still strongly felt that the state should not be taking on what they still saw as the duty of mothers to be the sole carer of their children.

This period also saw a growing recognition of the role of childminders. In 1974, responsibility for registering childminders moved from local authority health departments to social services, though concerns were raised that many childminders were still operating illegally and in poor conditions. In 1977, the National Childminding Association was formed to give childminders a voice and enable them to improve their conditions.

By 1978, one third of children attended some form of state registered childcare. In 1980, the National Childcare Campaign was formed, campaigning for mothers to have universal access to childcare, now as a feminist demand to allow women more equal access to the workplace.  By the middle of the decade almost half a million children were in nurseries and many more in the care of childminders.

1984 – 1994

During the 1980s access to childcare really started to become political. Ahead of the 1987 election the Labour Party toyed with making nursery places for three and four year olds free on demand. This was opposed by the then Conservative government, on the grounds of cost. It was also debated whether local authorities should be obliged to provide childcare places, and further, an early years curriculum. In the end however, these measures’ time would not come for another couple of decades.

1989 saw another major development. The Children Act 1989 reflecting certain aspects the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was passed by Parliament. Significantly, it stipulated that the welfare of the child must always be paramount. This is a key consideration that must now underpin all policy regarding children.

As time wore on, preschools and playgroups were getting bigger, offering more hours and more complex activities. Although mothers still frequently played a role in the management of provision, professional childcare practitioners who had developed careers in the existing settings began to open their own, often introducing new innovations along the way. Reflecting this, Morton Michel launched our Nursery policy in 1993.

1994 – 2004

The 1990s also saw a change in attitudes towards older children. As both parents working full time became more commonplace, wraparound provision for school age children grew in popularity. Schools began to open breakfast and homework clubs, often initially responding to parental demand, but soon the advantages offering a different kind of education outside the school day became apparent. With the sector growing, Morton Michel launched  our Out of School policy in 1994.

After being elected to power in 1997, the New Labour government introduced a number of childcare reforms. These began in 1998 with the National Childcare Strategy and the first ‘free’ early education entitlement, which offered five sessions of two and a half hours per week, 33 weeks a year for four year olds. This was extended to all three year olds in 2004 a goal was also set to introduce 20 hours a week of childcare for three and four year olds by 2010.

In 2001 the Early Years Directorate was formed at Ofsted, with responsibility for nursery inspecting nurseries, and new National Standards came into force. However, perhaps the most significant aspect of these reforms was not the ‘free’ hours however, but the stipulation that provision would focus on education, rather than care, so as to give children a better start in life. As a result of the strategy, almost 700,000 places were created by 2001.

2004 – 2014

This decade perhaps saw early years education really come of age, with the passing of the Childcare Act 2006, which set the groundwork for the introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage in 2008. Controversial at the time, introduced a ‘curriculum’ for the childcare sector, in response to research highlighting how good quality childcare can support children’s learning and development. Compulsory regulation and inspection was also introduced to childminders, putting them on the same footing as the rest of the childcare sector for the first time.

The EYFS was evaluated in 2011 by the new Coalition government. It found that quality had risen significantly. In 2008, 59% of childcare providers were rated good or outstanding. By August 2010, this had risen to 68%, and 71% for childcare non non-domestic premises. It also found that literacy, language and communication amongst young children had improved, and was particularly rapid for some traditionally poor performing groups. It also found that, almost without exception, children were enjoying their time in whatever type of setting they were in.

A further trend also began during this period however, which is the long-term decline in the number of childminders. Regulation was believed to be responsible, but so was competition from nursery provision. In an effort to address this, the then Childcare Minister, Liz Truss proposed several reforms. These included an unpopular change to staff:child ratios, which was later dropped, but also the introduction of Childminder Agencies, the first of which were registered in the following years.

2014 – 2024

By 2014, childcare was rarely out of the headlines. The financial crisis, which began in 2008 never truly went away, and stagnating wages combined with rising prices meant that by 2014 for many families, childcare now cost more than housing. At the 2015 general election, both Labour and the Conservatives sought to win votes through promising a dramatic expansion to state-funded hours. Labour offered 25, the Tories, who ultimately won a surprise majority, offered 30.

Undoubtedly controversial, the ‘free’ hours contributed to a rapid change in childcare provision. Never funded to the degree the sector wanted, many smaller settings struggled to stay open, while larger nurseries grew in size. Childminder numbers continued to decline however, though a handful of Childminder Agencies opened and began to see some growth. A further challenge also developed in recruiting a workforce. Childcare has always been something that many people want to do, but, with a growing cost of living crisis and increasing reliance on government funding, as well as changing qualification requirements, many providers found staff recruitment and retention a struggle.

2020 and 2021 also saw the sector tackle perhaps its greatest challenge, with the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, all childcare providers were ordered to close by the government, unless they were looking after key workers’ children. In the lockdowns of 2021, they were permitted to remain open, even while schools were closed, but even so, the toll taken on the sector was immense! It should always be a matter of huge pride for everyone involved that childcare provision played a key role in the nation’s response to the pandemic.

2024 – The Future

So what happens next? The world is clearly a very different place. Today childcare itself is almost uncontroversial, the vast majority of parents accept and agree that early years education is incredibly beneficial to children. Not only that but politicians, keen to ensure that both parents are able to work, as well as recognising the importance of the provision itself, often make childcare a central policy platform. Nonetheless, there are still great debates to be had about access, qualifications, curriculum and pedagogy – not to mention funding!

Still, when we look back to 1964, when childcare consisted of a handful of oversubscribed providers, offering predominantly sessional care, we can see how hard it is to predict what may come. But we can also see the common thread, that throughout the last sixty years, providing a caring environment where children can learn through play, has been consistently championed by the sector – and we can expect that to continue long into the future.

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