Early warning system

Kay Andrews on the government’s failure to acknowledge the wider importance of the pre-school sector during and beyond lockdown

While the legacy of the UK government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 epidemic will be measured in many ways, focus will fall on the education sector where profound inequalities have been exposed and intensified. Crucially so, in pre-school services.

The Chief Executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), Neil Leitch has put it powerfully, calling the government’s attitude ‘frankly appalling’ and adding:

“It has refused to reverse its last minute decision to restrict providers’ ability to access furlough funding; it has refused to offer any financial support to help early years providers meet the additional costs of operating safely; and it has refused to commit to any kind of transitional funding to help the sector get through this period of significantly reduced demand.”

Nurseries and childminders provide equally vital services for working parents, but they have had none of the financial security available to schools. Some nurseries have managed to remain open, but with massive reductions in income at a time when they have continued to face huge bills. Moreover, the sector has been the victim of massive confusion and contradiction.

Initial guidance from the Department of Education suggested that childcare settings could fully access both continued early entitlement funding schemes and support with staff wages via the Job Retention Scheme (JRS). But just three days before the related portal opened, providers were told they would only receive JRS for the part of their income normally accounted for by private sources. By April, two thirds of those responding to an EYA survey said they had already furloughed staff because of this change, with 47% saying they may have to make redundancies.

And what about government advice for parents? A more recent survey by the EYA showed that three in ten parents gave the government the lowest possible rating (on a scale of one to ten) when asked how clear it had been on reopening childcare settings. As of last week, fewer than half the parents facing the dilemma of whether to send their children back said they would.

Ongoing surveys and analysis suggest the impact on pre-school bodies will be devastating. 69% expect to operate at a loss over the next six months; nearly a sixth believe they could close permanently; and the sector-wide financial shortfall has been estimated at £824 million. That there is no additional financial support to cover the extra costs of operating during pandemic – not even PPE and cleaning costs – has added hugely to the burden.

Five years ago, during the passage of the skeleton Childcare Bill, Labour Peers warned that the sector could not support the extension of free childcare hours without extra investment. We were sadly proved right. Last year, Ofsted figures revealed that between April 2018 and March 2019 more than 500 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders closed every month in England. The majority were in our poorest communities, where the need for pre-school learning to combat inherent disadvantage and promote social mobility, is paramount.

On Monday in the House of Lords, I will press the Education Minister to acknowledge the government's failure to acknowledge the financial crisis facing the pre-school sector and explain how it will deliver urgent and sustained funding to early years' providers. Not just to enable nurseries and childminders to get through what remains of this current crisis but to establish future resilience and capability to rebuild organisations that are essential to both our communities and the wider UK economy.

Baroness Kay Andrews is a Labour Peer

Published 7th June 2020

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