By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice
Not for the first time, the Government seems to have forgotten about, or overlooked, the early years. It has provided support for schools and to various sectors of the economy badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but has ignored the concerns of MPs and the multitude of reports that have highlighted the parlous financial state of the childcare sector.
In essence, a sector which was financially fragile before the pandemic and is now in danger of, if not already, collapsing under the strain, has been left to fend for itself – again.
Evidence contained in several recent reports, from the Sutton Trust, Ceeda and the Early Years Alliance, all appear to have been ignored by government – despite the fact they clearly show the financial impact of years of underfunding on the early years sector in England.
Most alarming is the forecast that as many as one in four nurseries, or one in three in disadvantaged areas, are facing permanent closure because of financial difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic.
Despite these concerns, sector leaders were dealt another blow when Chancellor Rishi Sunak failed to mention childcare and early years in his Summer Statement, despite focusing on improving the jobs market and tackling youth unemployment.
At a time when government focus is on economic recovery, the political and economic disregard not only of the evidence, but for the crucial role of the sector to the economy, is disturbing. The subsequent loss of provision for children and families will also result in job losses within the sector.
The closure of nurseries, and loss to the sector of the qualified and experienced professionals who care for and educate our youngest children and support parents, will have a serious impact on families, particularly those in low paid employment, which would also be a huge blow to economic recovery after the pandemic.
A further report from the Children’s Commissioner is right to call for a complete overhaul of early years services and a government-funded rescue package for the sector. In her report, she recognises the opportunity the pandemic has generated, and which should be grasped, to shape a sector that provides the very best for everyone – children, parents and the workforce.
Her recommendations include an infrastructure of children and family hubs across the country providing a gateway to services, and greater recognition of the important role early years professionals play. While the recommendations have been warmly welcomed by the sector, the reality is that most would take time to develop and implement, and by far the most the important matter facing the sector now is sustainability of provision and jobs.
Early education and childcare providers know that lack of availability and choice hits the disadvantaged communities hardest, and that early intervention for disadvantaged children reaps the greatest benefit.
So now it is time for both short-term action and a long-term plan from the Government to save the early years sector and the jobs of the workforce.
As we all know, childcare is expensive, yet the early education sector has been neglected and underfunded for years by central government. Recruitment to the early years and childcare sector was already in crisis before COVID-19 and, as we know, qualified staff can find work with less responsibility and higher pay outside of childcare, and many were taking that route.
The Government must act now with both immediate financial support and long-term investment to save the childcare sector and recognise early education and childcare as a critical infrastructure cost for immediate economic recovery and future economic health.
Early years education entitlement must be funded at the correct level to ensure the continued viability of the sector. This will help to secure the future of the sector for children, families and those who work in it, and ensure supply and demand are equal to the needs of all families.
For too long, the private, voluntary and independent early years sector has been the ‘Cinderella service’ – with hard working and dedicated staff starved of resources, overlooked and taken for granted.
We are waiting for the Department for Education to implement its 2017 Early Years Workforce Strategy, and it is scandalous that it decided not to proceed with its commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce.
The childcare sector is creative, practical and solution-focused. We want to work with the Government to raise the status of early years professionals and solve the recruitment and retention crisis.
We need to see the Government recommit to its workforce strategy and the abandoned graduate feasibility study, and implement and invest in a national career and pay structure.
The Prime Minister has a stated enthusiasm for ‘levelling up’. It’s now time for him to take action and level-up funding, status, training and pay levels, and put the early years at the heart, as well as the start, of lifelong learning and economic recovery. We challenge him to get this ‘done’.
IFS report highlights childcare and equalities crises (4 September 2020)