Foregrounding racial equalities in the Birth to 5 Matters guidance

Liz Pemberton and Shaddai Tembo

In this article, we share our thoughts around equalities in relation to a survey in October and subsequent report on the results of the first Birth to 5 Matters practitioner online survey. We both believe it is necessary to ensure that race is not omitted nor given lesser importance within the conversation about equalities within the Early Years. This piece will outline our motivations for amplifying why we believe this, and look at the previous documentation that has been presented to provide historical context. Finally, we outline the potential harm for non-white children that we will see repeated for future generations if racial inequalities are not tackled within the profession.

In the contemporary moment, with a renewed interested in anti-racist pedagogies and the ongoing need to address racism in all forms within early years provision, the results of the first Birth to 5 Matters survey provided us with a useful opportunity to reflect on the interest in foregrounding equalities within any alternative guidance.

Truthfully, we were a little disappointed. Yet neither were we surprised. For at least the past decade, while there is substantial evidence that racism in educational spaces has either remained the same or worsened, meaningful conversations around racial equality have remained few and far between.

We were frustrated to see that while most of the respondents had 10+ years of experience, they gave equalities less importance than other areas of development. This is clear in questions 12 and 18 where when respondents were asked “Which of the following topics would you like Birth to 5 Matters to cover”; the response stated 68% would like to see equalities covered, placing it as the sixth most popular response out of ten topics. We note this not to say that it should be first, but rather to point attention to the fact that, generally speaking, equalities is not a topic that is high on most people’s priority list. In response to “Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding the Birth to 5 Matters guidance?”, no more than a handful out of the 278 responses mentioned equality, diversity, or disadvantage.

What does this mean for us – should equalities really be seen as less important? We take seriously the need to acknowledge practitioners’ voices, and we see things a little differently, too. As Black educators heavily invested in anti-racist pedagogy, we believe that the lack of concern for equalities reflects a broader apathy toward the potential for meaningful change beginning in the early years.

Clearly, equalities matter in our profession because we acknowledge the need to ensure that every child is treated fairly and given equal opportunity to develop holistically. As Jane Lane states in her Nursery World article, “Race and Ethnicity” (2010), “very few people working with young children would deliberately discriminate against children because they are from a black or other minority ethnic group”.  But she goes on to acknowledge that “institutional racism occurs when people carry on doing what they have always done, purely because they have not had the opportunity or the concern to think about the issues involved”.

Jane’s comments echo the pledges from the days of Surestart, where it was fully emphasised that “Every Child Matters”. We all have to be collectively aligned to this pledge if we want to ensure that every child feels like they do matter. Importantly, this is directly tied to equalities. 

To this end, we continue to feel strongly about the need to foreground racial equalities within early years provision. In the forthcoming alternative guidance, we intend to make sure that practitioners do not just understand the importance of a setting that is reflective and representative of a multi-racial Britain through resources, but really delves deeper into challenging their mindsets as part of developing an anti-racist pedagogy.

We will ensure that Birth to 5 Matters explicitly talks about the harm of whiteness as a structure and its direct impact on the identity of Black African, Black Caribbean, South Asian, East/Southeast Asian heritage children and families.

We will ensure that the multi-faceted nature of racial identity is torn away from the grouping together of all non-white people through the use of acronyms that have been developed in the absence of the communities that they seek to describe. Instead, we will begin to help practitioners develop a language that is informed directly by the minoritised communities, for example, a common acronym used amongst the British-born Chinese community is BBC.

Looking back to previous guidance relating to anti-racism, we intend to fully endorse the ‘Building Futures: Believing in children A focus on provision for Black children in the Early Years Foundation Stage (2009) guidance. This document contains a wealth of knowledge for supporting Black children and their families that we feel has been forgotten in more recent guidance. For instance, following on from:

When parents value themselves as their children’s first teachers and have the confidence to support their children’s learning in a genuine partnership with practitioners, outcomes for children can be seen to improve.

the guidance also clearly recommends that we, as practitioners:

Work closely with parents and families, developing mutual understanding of how Black African and Black Caribbean heritage children play and the importance of building on children’s interests.

In closing, we have been involved in the early years for 25 years combined and have held a number of roles as qualified practitioners, a nursery manager, a doctoral researcher, a teacher of childcare and health and social care, a lecturer and trainer and finally as consultants. We believe we are well placed to argue that these recommendations from 10 years ago are yet to be realised, or even acknowledged as important in the quest for equalities within the majority of early years settings in Britain. We aim to return to this guidance and ensure that the points raised in this article around the need to foreground racial equalities are met through the alternative Birth to Five Matters guidance with the Early Years coalition.

Liz Pemberton is a former Nursery Manager, Qualified Secondary Teacher of Childcare and Health & Social Care and is the Director of her own company, The Black Nursery Manager Training and Consultancy, which specialises in anti – racist practice in the Early Years. You can follow her on Instagram @TheblacknurserymanagerShaddai Tembo is a Lecturer in Early Education & Childhood Practice at Perth College UHI and Postgraduate Research Student at the University of the West of Scotland. Shaddai is also a trustee for Early Education, co-convenes the SERA Early Years Network and (occasionally) writes independently at You can follow him on Twitter @CriticalEYears.