Guest blog: Creating a blueprint for early education and childcare
Imagine you had a blank piece of paper on which to develop a country’s early education and childcare policy from scratch. It could be a game changer.
Successive governments have tinkered with the existing policy, adding more and more funded hours as bolt-ons rather than going back to the drawing board to see how they would work in practice. Funding has always lagged behind any cost increases.
The sensible approach would be for policy-makers to consider what they want to achieve and why, then work out the most effective and value-for-money way to get those results. Early education and childcare policy – which is currently at the top of all political parties’ agendas – must work for children and families, but also for all types of providers.
The Blueprint for Early Education and Childcare
With a general election looming and the current government forging ahead with its plans to expand funded childcare for two-year-olds and under, NDNA took the initiative this summer. We invited representatives from around 20 national organisations from the early years sector, including economists and academics, to roundtable discussions.
There was a lot more consensus on the fundamental issues affecting the sector, and the result of those discussions was our Blueprint for Early Education and Childcare. We launch this officially at the party conferences in October, with the aim of informing all political parties’ manifestos to ensure all children have access to high quality early education and care.
Key to our Blueprint are the topline considerations of purpose and quality of early education and childcare, funding, workforce and regulation, with the child placed at the centre.
For any policy to be successful, it's crucial that voters, particularly parents and future early years educators, understand the importance of a child’s first five years. Investment in these early years will save money in the long run, reduce inequalities, improve wellbeing and support all children to fulfil their potential.
That’s why we are proposing several recommendations for the future of early education and childcare, to raise awareness and ensure this remains a central concern for any society beyond general election cycles.
Quality of early education provision must be at the heart of an effective childcare policy that results in better outcomes for children. It can make such a difference to children’s lives, especially those from deprived backgrounds, if practitioners can open up a world of exciting new learning opportunities for them at an early age. It’s this thirst for learning, along with a wide-ranging vocabulary, which will really boost their development, communication skills and wellbeing.
The focus so far has been on enabling parents to work, rather than the importance of child development in the early years. Emphasis must be placed on the latter to optimise cognitive, emotional and social development. The Blueprint looks further than this, at a holistic approach towards early childhood, encompassing education, health and social care to ensure a consistent approach with the child’s needs at the centre.
One simple way of achieving this focus on quality is to change policy language. So a shift from using the word childcare to instead employing the phrase early education and childcare as standard will be a good place to start.
The workforce crisis is causing huge stress and pressure on the early years sector. For the first time, we have seen this year that a lack of staff is causing nurseries to close, either temporarily or permanently.
As well as the obvious financial reasons for qualified staff deserting the sector entirely for better-paid but much less rewarding jobs in retail and hospitality, we need to raise the status of our early educators to that of teachers.
Now that so many of our children have additional needs, especially around communication and language skills, our workforce needs to be trained to specifically meet these children’s needs.
NDNA is putting out its latest research on nursery closures later this month, which makes for shocking reading. The rate of closures has not begun to slow down but continues unabated. For every nursery closure, there is a community that is devastated: families searching desperately for a childcare setting they can feel secure to leave their precious child in; employers without a job; children parted from their friends and a community hub lost.
The single biggest reason for nurseries having to close is the financial pressures they face. Government funding rates have never kept pace with inflation. Our latest survey earlier this year revealed that the average shortfall for three and four-year-old places was £2.31. Since then the rate has gone up by just a handful of pennies, which is nowhere near enough.
From September, providers have been receiving a higher rate for their two-year-olds. This has been welcomed by the sector, a final recognition that they cannot deliver high quality places on pocket money prices.
But it’s still not enough. Nurseries have on average ten times more funded three and four-year-olds than they do two-year-olds. Many nurseries have told us that if the Government had put up the pre-school places funding as much as the two-year-old rate, that would have certainly helped. It’s still well below what you would pay a dog walker for an hour, but it’s a step in the right direction. The rate for the older children needs a meaningful uplift – currently the average increase is just 33p, which is woefully inadequate for nurseries to survive.
It does not make any sense for the Government to be giving money to nurseries to deliver sessions on their behalf, then take it away in the form of business rates and VAT. This argument has been successful in Scotland and Wales, so it’s time the Westminster Government implemented a similar policy.
And although some nurseries are closing due to a lack of staff, it’s the lack of funding which is central to the sector’s workforce pressures. Our nurseries would love to pay their dedicated, experienced and qualified staff the wages they deserve. But the Government is their biggest customer, effectively fixing the market and determining that the early years workforce will remain poorly paid.
We hope our Blueprint will pave the way for the next government to revisit early education and childcare policy, put the child first and truly support the early years sector to achieve its full, wonderful potential.