Early years have been treated as an afterthought, the sector is now on the brink of collapse
Unless Ministers rethink the funding changes, there may not be much of a childcare sector left by 2022, writes Tulip Siddiq MP. | Adobe Stock
It's time for government to start taking early years seriously, by publishing the scientific data behind the decision to keep them open and provide targeted support the sector so badly needs.
After the Prime Minister’s address to the nation announcing the third national lockdown, Google was flooded with searches of the question “Why are nurseries not closing?”.
With England returning to the toughest restrictions since March and primary schools moving to online learning, it was not clear why early years settings were staying open to all children. In the confusion, more people googled ‘nurseries’ on Monday than on any day in the last 15 years.
For some parents, it will have been a relief to know that they will not have to juggle work and childcare all day every day, and that their child could continue to receive essential early education. But fears about Covid transmission and the safety of staff and families were on the minds of many.
Nursery workers, childminders and nannies deserve to know the scientific basis for the decision to keep early years settings open during lockdown, when primaries are closing to most pupils. I wrote to the government earlier this week demanding a clear, evidence-based explanation and a plan for keeping early years workers safe through regular mass testing and proper provision of other support like PPE.
If Ministers think that simply allowing providers to stay open through this lockdown is enough to ensure their survival, they are sorely mistaken
The truth is that the early years sector has been treated like an afterthought by the government throughout this crisis. Providers have been excluded from financial support like Covid catch-up funding and the help with cleaning costs, staff absences and coronavirus testing that schools have received. A sector that faced a £600 million funding gap before coronavirus has been crippled by massively reduced demand during the pandemic and now stands on the brink of collapse.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, early years providers ran at a significant loss during the first lockdown, receiving less than £4 of income for every £5 of costs. If Ministers think that simply allowing providers to stay open through this lockdown is enough to ensure their survival, they are sorely mistaken. Lockdown is likely to wipe out already low demand for childcare and with it provider incomes.
Despite these huge challenges for the sector, the government is changing early years funding from this month by basing it on current occupancy rather than pre-Covid levels as it has since April last year. With the number of families accessing formal childcare well below normal levels and set to drop further, pressing ahead with this policy would be a death knell for much of the sector. 20,000 childcare providers are set to close within six months unless Ministers rethink these changes.
The brilliant early years workforce is once again being asked to provide an emergency childcare service during this lockdown, and they must not be punished at the end of it by losing their jobs.
It is time for the government to start taking early years seriously, by telling us the scientific basis of their decision-making and giving the sector the targeted support it so badly needs. Unless Ministers rethink the funding changes, there may not be much of a childcare sector left by 2022.
It would be a betrayal of working parents and the next generation to allow fantastic nurseries and childminding businesses go to the wall. The government will not be forgiven if they let this happen.
Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and shadow minister for early years.