Parents require as much stability as possible while on the rollercoaster ride

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A FEW days after my son was born I received the following message from a friend: ‘Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a small human. For thousands of years babies have entered well-ordered and well-rested lives and turned them, well – upside down. Brace yourself, there’s a rollercoaster ahead – but it’s an amazing ride.’

It has turned out, in my experience so far at least, to be a spot on assessment of parenthood, with its ups and downs, moments of sheer terror and elation and, well, the fact that you can’t get off once you’re on.

Put simply, being a parent is tough but wonderful. And it is tough for all sorts of reasons; the lack of sleep, the pressure of caring for another human being, the guilt if you dare to do anything but sit and play Lego for hours on end, the constant pressure of choices for your child – which injections, which school, which milk, which rules…

And parenthood can be really tough financially.

It is for all of these reasons, not just the money worries, that parents need stability when it comes to policy decisions about their children and their future.

After all, the less stress that needs to be added to a parent’s life the better.

Education Minister Tracey Vallois has said in recent days that an overhauled system for early years is likely to be in place by 2020, with next year’s pre-schoolers the final year to receive the 20 free hours of nursery education under the existing Nursery Education Fund scheme.

Many will have read that and worried about what comes next, and if their children will get any free hours under the new system, and what that means for their well laid financial plans for the future.

However, the announcement should be seen as a positive one and one which ultimately should give parents stability and assurance.

Because the minister says whatever comes next – and it is ‘highly likely’ to include some free nursery hours – should be a long-term solution.

And that is exactly what parents, but also the Island, need.

There’s no use introducing a scheme like the States did with the NEF in 2009 and then trying to take it away just a few short years later like they did in 2016.

That move was a PR disaster for the then Education Minister Rod Bryans, just like the proposal to cut the grants to fee-paying schools was for his predecessor James Reed.

Change is never easy within an education system, but done correctly it is possible to limit the stress for families, staff and the wider public.

And a big part of that is down to being open and honest about the plans and the rationale behind them.

With that in mind, the NEF has been a broken system from the start. Nurseries say they only get part of the cost for each free hour covered by the States and then have to foot the bill for the rest, while the government claims the glory for providing parents with such a benefit.

And it’s the same in the UK where 30 free hours was recently introduced but is already causing problems for nursery providers.

So it is clear that change is needed.

But crucial to the process will be the long-term perspective, the need to get something in place that can last and, as Senator Vallois said, is flexible enough to be adjusted along the way when required without causing everyone the stress of ripping up the rule book and starting all over again.

And it is the same with the new university grant scheme proposed by former Treasury Minister Alan Maclean.

That scheme, which is now in place, needs its future confirmed in the long-term with some proper information and decisions about how it will be funded, which remain outstanding.

There’s other big questions in all of this, of course, aside from just the finances.

And there is likely to be change in other aspects and not just the free hours for pre-schoolers.

But the conversation is now out in the open and discussions are behind had behind the scenes with the Jersey Early Years Association, which represents nursery providers.

The challenge now is actually to come up with a new system that meets the requirements of Jersey families today but also into the future.

And that means developing – and agreeing – something which enables families to plan ahead and know what to expect from some of the twists and turns of the parental rollercoaster. After all, there’s enough surprises along the way that are out of our control.

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