Extend free childcare to one-year-olds to protect vulnerable from coronavirus fallout, ministers urged
Vulnerable children face losing out as the UK recovers from coronavirus pandemic (Credit: PA)
Free childcare should be extended to one-year-olds to stop disadvantaged families falling through the cracks as the UK deals with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government has been told.
Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield wants ministers to put early years education at the centre of Covid-19 recovery plans to prevent thousands of nurseries from financial collapse and help children from poorer backgrounds get the best start in life.
The closure of childcare settings will hold back vulnerable youngsters and hinder the country's economic recovery, she has warned.
And the Commissioner is calling for an expanded 30 hours' free childcare for all children aged two, three and four, plus 15 free hours for all one-year-olds, "so that early years education is seen as part of ordinary life".
It comes amid warnings from childcare providers that one in four nurseries and pre-schools fear closure within the year, rising to one in three in the most disadvantaged areas after months of lockdown.
Ms Longfield's report warns that many children across the country, particularly those growing up in disadvantaged families, are already behind by the time they start formal education.
Those who do not reach their expected learning goals at age five are five times more likely to be excluded by the age of 10, twice as likely to have had contact with children’s social care by age 11, three times more likely to be struggling with reading at age 11 and four times more likely to be struggling with writing at the same point.
Research also shows they are more likely to leave school with no GCSEs, to suffer some form of mental ill health and to be obese.
“Each year 82,000 children in England start school significantly behind where they should be at the age of five. That is one in seven children, or four children in every classroom," Ms Longfield said.
"This report shows that their life chances can already be undermined at this point, if there is no joined up system of early support to help them get ready to learn.
She added: “Nurseries and early years support play a vital role in helping children prepare for school, but Coronavirus and lockdown have put many at risk of closure.
"The consequences could be thousands of children missing out on vital support that sets them on a path to a good education and better prospects.
“At the same time, any economic recovery will need parents to able to return to work full time. Nursery closures could put a dent in plans to get the economy back on track."
Labour's shadow education minister, Tulip Siddiq, backed the call, urging ministers to provide extra funding to nurseries and warning that mass closures could lead to parents losing their jobs due to a lack of childcare.
“This report confirms what we’ve known for some time – that chronic underfunding of early years has hit disadvantaged children the hardest," she said.
"The childcare sector is now on the brink of collapse due to Covid-19, and we know that it is nurseries in deprived areas that are most likely to close.
“Not only is early education essential for children’s development, but nurseries and childminders are also essential for parents to be able to get back to work. The economic consequences of mass childcare closures are too awful to contemplate."
The shadow minister said Labour backs "targeted support" for childcare "to prevent a wave of nursery closures, which would devastate working families and set back out economic recovery".
The Commissioner's report meanwhile recommends a ‘Best Beginnings’ early years investment plan, ranging from boosting children and family hubs to increasing the availability of midwives and health visitors, to tackle potential problems at the beginning of a child’s life.
“In the immediate term, we need an emergency Government rescue package to stop nurseries going under – but there is much more to do beyond that," Ms Longfield said.
“The Government must make the early years a priority and drive reforms so that all children start school ready and able to learn and progress.
"Alongside high-quality early education, this means making sure that every family is guaranteed the support they need to help their young child to thrive, and to prevent early challenges turning into serious problems."
The Local Government Association, which represents councils across the country, backed the Commissioner's findings, warning the pandemic has "exacerbated the financial challenges facing early years providers" and worsened an already urgent need for extra funding.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our fantastic nurseries, childminders and pre-schools provide crucial support for children and families.
"That’s why this Government has always championed the early years sector and why we are continuing to back early years entitlements with £3.6bn this year.
“Alongside this we have protected early years settings throughout the pandemic with significant financial and business support, including through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
“We are investing in early years organisations to help them boost disadvantaged children’s development, with grants targeted at improving outcomes for young children at risk of falling behind by age five, and for those with special educational needs.”