The Future of Early Years: A Parliamentary Debate
by Jack on December 17
On December 3rd Westminster Hall hosted an important debate to discuss the future of Early Years.
The good attendance pays testament to the importance of this issue. MPs from all over the country spoke at the debate as well as notable names in the education world such as Tulip Siddiq, Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, and Vicky Ford, Minister for Children and Families.
Steve Brine, MP for Winchester and chair of the APPG for Early Education and Childcare secured this debate, with help from the members of the APPG for Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception classes.
Steve Brine, MP for Winchester and chair of the APPG for Early Education and Childcare
Steve Brine began with looking for something positive. He recognised the fact that the government promised an increase in early years investment in the recent spending review and explained how that was evidence the government were starting to see the importance of the early years sector. Mr Brine also praised the 30 hour-free childcare scheme, while also saying: “Just because that is the right policy, however, it is not without unintended consequence.”
Mr. Brine gave an excellent overview of the financial challenge the early years sector faces and has been facing for some time now.
“The whole sector faces a real challenge, not only because of the effects of the pandemic but, more importantly, because of an unsustainable position at the heart of the sector’s funding, which we have to rectify.”
He is speaking, among other factors, of the Early Years National Funding Formula which sets the financial entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds across the country. A formula that many would argue went out of date a long time ago.
“Prior to covid, the funding gap in the early years sector was estimated to be £824 million. At that point, there was already a 37% funding deficit between the hourly costs of delivering a funded childcare place for a two-year-old and the rate paid to providers, and a 20% funding deficit for places for three and four-year-olds. That is not a sustainable long-term position.”
This, like almost everything else, has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic, meaning change needs to happen quicker than ever if we want this sector to survive.
“In short, I would like a funding mechanism to increase funding rates in line with the rising costs of delivering childcare. Statutory wage rises, increases in pension contributions and inflation rates all erode the balance that providers must maintain to remain financially viable.”
Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North
Miss Nokes reported on the inner workings of a nursery local to her and provided a valuable insight on the position sector workers are in right now.
“The stark reality is that with staff costs, pension costs, increases in utility costs and personal protective equipment costs all going up, the funding for childcare has not kept pace with the pressures faced. The £4.55 per funded hour per child over the age of three does not meet her operating costs of £6.80, and they have no choice but to make a charge for consumables, which parents do not necessarily understand, having listened very clearly to the Government’s mantra that it is 30 free hours per week. She will still run at a loss for every hour, every child. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is working hard on this, is going to talk about the £44 million early years injection, but that is simply not enough to begin to cover the 75p per child per hour average loss made by providers such as Lou.”
Miss Nokes also drew attention to the sad reality that the “market failure” in this sector disproportionately affects women. The vast majority of early years settings are run by women and employ mostly women; by looking after children the sector enables other women to go out and work. This means there is a “social cost” to this issue.
Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn
Tulip Siddiq spoke passionately about the lack of support for the early years sector, especially when compared to schools. She mentioned the furlough scheme and how that was promised to all early years providers only to be reversed a few days later. Also, that early years providers have not been able to claim back money spent on making their settings “covid-secure”. Ms Siddiq provided other examples of disparity:
“I am also worried that nurseries with rateable values of over £15,000 were not allowed to access the larger covid grants for retail hospitality or leisure businesses. I hope the Minister will look into that. The Chancellor agreed to give nurseries business rates relief only after intense lobbying from all sides, but, sadly, that support is due to come to an end in April next year, and maintained nursery schools, which have been mentioned repeatedly in this debate, are not able to access it. Many part-time or recently started childminders have been excluded from help through the self-employment income support scheme, and the early years providers did not qualify for the £1 billion covid catch-up funding. Last week, they were excluded from the covid workforce fund to help with the cost of staff absences, despite huge staff pressures.”
Ms Siddiq ended her speech with a sobering thought:
“… this debate is about the future of nurseries and early years settings. The reality is that without better support, and a new approach, thousands of them may not have a future at all.”
Vicky Ford, MP for Chelmsford
Vicky ford, the last speaker in the debate, started by praising the Early Years sector. Bringing focus to the increase in early years providers rated good or outstanding by Ofsted from 2012 (74% to 96% this year). The rising proportion of children reaching GLD compared to 2013 and the narrowing of the disadvantage gap.
On the subject of funding, Ms Ford had this to say:
“… early years settings will continue to benefit from a planned £3.6 billion of funding for this financial year, but for the next financial year colleagues should understand that there will be a demographic change, and as a result of falling birth rates there will be fewer children in the early years age group. Therefore, the total early years entitlement spend in 2021-22 may be less than in 2020-21. However, for 2021-22 the Chancellor has announced a further £44 million, which means that local authorities will be able to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s free childcare offers. That will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost that nurseries may face from the uplift to the national living wage in April. I wanted to put that important fact on the record. Further details and information on how the money will be distributed will be made available as soon as possible.”
This raises two questions: Firstly, is a £44 million injection realistically going to cover the lift to the national living wage, and secondly, if the total entitlement for next year will be less anyway is any provider going to be in a better position because of it?
Steve Brine closed the debate thanking the speakers and summarising some of the main points. In his own words:
“We have heard speeches that cover every aspect of the sector, from the 389 maintained nurseries to the 20,000 or so in the PVI sector, and then there are childminders and our children’s centres. My message is that we need to see the sector as a whole. All providers across the sector look after SEND children. All understand that a plan for jobs needs a plan for childcare. The consistent theme has been that we have to close the gap between what it costs to provide the childcare and what providers receive to provide it. Unless we close that gap, we will continue to have this discussion.”
This debate was an important step forward for the early years sector. It clearly drew a lot of attention from MPs and I’m sure we all hope the topics discussed are taken further up the ladder. If you want to read the full transcription of the debate, you can do so here.