Why early years education should never be an afterthought

Government policy has childcare providers struggling to survive.

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Throughout lockdown and the response to this pandemic we have seen the value of critical workers redefined. Once the Covid-19 crisis hit, nurseries and schools were told to close, but a large number provided emergency childcare for key worker families and vulnerable children. They were, you might say, the fourth emergency service, enabling frontline workers to keep the country moving. Staff risked exposure to infection and businesses opened for the handful of children who needed them, operating at a loss throughout lockdown.

Responding to this crisis and planning our recovery gives us a chance to reassess the undervalued and under-appreciated work of the early years and childcare sector in this country. Any government plan for jobs needs to have a plan for childcare to support parents back into the workplace without reinforcing gender inequalities. At the same time, it is vital that our children do not lose out on the opportunities that high-quality early education can provide.

Many studies show that investment in early years brings the greatest reward, you get more “bang for your buck”. High-quality early education also gives children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance of closing the inequality gap.

[Read more: Why Britain's childcare system is on the brink of collapse]

Professor James Heckman created the "Heckman Curve”, which illustrates that, “the highest rate of economic returns comes from the earliest investments in children”. However, we often wait too long and miss important opportunities to improve our children’s educational and life chances.

In the UK, we have the lowest investment in early years, compared with European countries such as France, Germany and Scandinavia. This is despite the “free” childcare schemes which successive governments have promised parents but never paid full value for, leaving childcare providers with an ever-growing shortfall. The investment is just not there to deliver what we want for our youngest children.

It is not just early years providers – the vast majority of whom are private, independent and voluntary nurseries – highlighting the challenge of chronic underfunding. We have been joined by the Treasury Select Committee, the National Audit Office, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Local Government Association in highlighting the risks posed by the Department for Education getting their sums wrong.

In its March report on the free childcare entitlements, the National Audit Office revealed that the Department for Education’s assessment of costs did not match reality. It said, “the Department’s studies potentially under-stated the average hourly cost.” Funding rates must be based on realistic measures in order for childcare businesses to be sustainable and invest in quality. Early learning cannot be done on the cheap.

 A policy arms race of simply offering more hours to parents will not solve the problem, either. Doubling the available hours for working parents just meant it became increasingly difficult to make up this funding shortfall. This has left providers and fee-paying parents footing the bill.

 We have joined over 150 leading children’s organisations calling on the government to put children at the heart of the country’s recovery and this includes recognising the contribution of those who care for and educate our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

To date, childcare providers have been able to access little in support other than a one-off holiday from unfair business rates and receiving the government funding already earmarked for childcare places. This funding was later offset against the amount employers could claim for furloughed staff.

There has been no assistance with higher operating costs which have been necessary to make nurseries safer. Providers worked incredibly hard with extra cleaning, installing more hand basins, sanitising stations and even putting up partitions to create smaller, safe spaces for children to play and learn.

We know that early years are some of the most important in a child’s development and yet the investment does not match the potential return. We need to urgently address this alongside the additional costs of continuing to operate in the current environment.

The National Day Nurseries Association is calling for a transformation fund for early years providers, many of whom are under extreme financial pressure following months of enforced closure or running at a loss. According to our research, 71 percent of nurseries in England expect to make losses over the next few months. The rest can only hope to break even.

[Read more: Stella Creasy: Coronavirus is like a magnifying lense on inequalities]

The Comprehensive Spending Review is the government’s chance to address the chronic underfunding that has hamstrung the sector for years. Governments need to see outlay in early years as an investment in our country’s future.

Finally, we have to simplify the whole system of childcare support to parents. Too many initiatives have been piled on top of each other: funded childcare hours, Tax Free Childcare, vouchers, tax credits and Universal Credit. It is a minefield for parents, providers and the national and local government bodies who have to administer them which leads to millions of pounds wasted on administration, red tape and budget miscalculations.

One simple account for parents and providers would cut through and mean the sector can focus on what it does best: caring for and educating our youngest children. Childcare must continue to be seen as it has been throughout this pandemic, as a vital opportunity for our children to learn and develop, as well as being an integral part of a strong economy. 

Investing in early years must not be an afterthought or somewhere budget holders can cut corners. There can be no levelling-up of opportunities across our country while some children still have a very rocky start to their learning journey. Our youngest children must be our first priority now and into the future.

Purnima Tanuku is chief executive of the National Day Nursuries Association. 

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