A major U-turn on early years funding could leave many key workers without childcare
Childcare is a fourth emergency service in this crisis, but it is being overlooked, warns the Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years.
A major U-turn on early years funding over the weekend could leave many key workers without childcare, depriving our NHS and other vital services of staff at a critical time. Unless urgent action is taken to save early years providers, other parents could soon find themselves in a similar position.
Childcare is a fourth emergency service in this crisis. Yet the serious challenges facing the nurseries, childminders and other early years settings which provide it are unfortunately being overlooked. Early years has been badly underfunded for a decade, and in the last financial year the childcare sector faced a £600m funding shortfall. With most children now forced to stay at home, the loss of fees in this crisis poses an existential threat to already struggling providers.
By asking private childcare settings to stay open for key workers and vulnerable children, Ministers want them to take on the responsibilities of schools but with the liabilities of businesses. As keen as these providers are to play their part in this national effort, many simply cannot afford to help without additional support. As a result, half of nurseries have already closed completely, and many owners fear that their childcare business will not survive this crisis.
In order to help with these challenges, the Government told early years providers that they could access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme whilst continuing to receive local authority funding for the free childcare they usually provide. This was a lifeline for providers like nurseries, most of which have already furloughed staff on this basis. However, on Friday night – nearly a month after this guidance was issued and just three days before the scheme opened – they were told that their access to furlough funding would be severely restricted.
It might seem quite technical, but this decision to withdraw funding that early years providers were initially promised will cripple many childcare businesses. They now face an agonising choice between paying staff not to work from money they likely do not have or making them redundant. Given the already dire financial situation these businesses are in, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that thousands of childcare workers will sadly lose their jobs and more nurseries will close, either temporarily or permanently.
These early years closures will leave key workers like doctors and nurses with no one to look after their children. That means they won’t be able to work until they can find alternative childcare, and this will have a significant impact on services like the NHS. If many more nurseries close as a result of this funding U-turn, as the early years sector is predicting, then local authorities will struggle to find childcare places for parents whose usual provider has closed. This will also be a problem for other parents who need childcare in the future, if restrictions on who must stay at home are loosened and when this lockdown finally ends.
I know that Ministers do not want to see early years businesses collapse and parents left without childcare. However, that is a real risk if they don’t rethink this decision and step in to save this vital sector. Early years providers play such an important role in the education of our children, so we need a proper plan from the Government to help them stay open and survive this crisis.