Early Years – The Reality, The Fears
I was recently delighted to be asked to attend the Minds Matter 2018 Conference in London. It was an informative conference, speakers included Amanda Spielman of Ofsted and Neil Leitch. Most of the talks were around the mental health of our very young children, and those who work with them in the Early Years sector. There was also an impressive Awards ceremony, where people who had contributed to the Early Years sector were recognised – I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears! The delight of seeing young people coming into the sector and SHINING! The incredible stories of people who had dedicated forty years to looking after nursery aged children. The inspiring stories of those who’ve developed new incentives to improve the quality and delivery of learning and development for our young children. Just WOW!
I have worked in the Early Years sector for many years, both in the UK and abroad. I have seen how childcare providers make a difference and enhance the learning and development of our youngest children. I have also seen how early intervention can make a huge impact on children, and their families, who might otherwise struggle with special needs. There is no doubt that quality early years childcare for our communities, reap huge rewards for people’s quality of life, their well-being, their future.
It pains me, angers me, shocks me to see how little the sector seems to be recognised or valued by those who govern our country. It has long been understood that the lack of fair funding for the UK government’s offer of 30 hours’ worth of free childcare means that some providers are being forced out of business. Those not closed down already are sometimes unable to offer places to the children who would benefit most. Of course, the government counter this by the usual hyperbole of ‘record amounts of money spent on the sector’. Those who recognise this as useless and shameful rhetoric remain appalled.
The 30-hour entitlement for three and four-year-olds, introduced in September last year, is placing unprecedented pressure on a fragmented sector, where many small nurseries were already struggling to deliver existing entitlements. The “free” hours are funded by the central government, on average, local authorities pass on £4.34 to childcare providers – it changes from region to region. Break even costs vary from nursery to nursery, with the average break-even figure being around £4.70. This, in my mind, is absolute madness. I have seen myself, just in my region, how smaller independent nurseries are closing – with nursery chains taking over, because they have greater resources and can spread the cost.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance has 14,000 members and also runs 108 childcare facilities in deprived areas where there is so often no private sector alternative. Their Chief Executive, Neil Leitch (a particular hero of mine), said: “It’s clear from these findings that the government’s flagship childcare policy is failing both providers and parents” and he goes on to say “most providers say they can only break even by increasing fees paid by parents of younger children, requiring parents to pay for extra hours or introducing “voluntary” charges”. He added that the government had “dropped the moral obligation on providers” to choose between offering a place to the families who most needed it, or to those who could pay the additional fees they needed to stay afloat.
This is so very evident -the shortfall in funding often means that costs are put on to those parents who can pay. A ‘Mumsnet’ mum recently complained about this ‘cross-subsidy’ in a post “I can’t afford to pay £150 extra to fund someone else’s free hours.” A poll in my own social media group found similar complaints. One mum told me that her fees had gone up by almost £70 per week since the funding started. Yet another complained that her nursery costs had sky-rocketed when she was asked to pay £60 per week for food. I also know some parents who have not gone back to work after maternity leave, simply because they can’t afford childcare – this is crazy, especially when one of the huge promises of the government was that the funding would allow more parents into work!
A manager friend of mine, who didn’t want to be named, told me ‘There is a considerable shortfall, we spent a long time discussing whether essentials like toilet rolls, nappies, wipes, hand soap, paint, paper or plasters might reasonably be classed as “extras” – so that any parents who were unwilling to pay a voluntary top-up would have to supply these things instead. We were reluctant, but we had to be realistic – or we wouldn’t have been able to survive. We now ask parents to pay for ‘outings’ to the park as well. Added to this, we have upped our fees considerably for our Baby Unit, just to spread the cost. I find it so hard to justify to parents – it’s a constant source of anxiety. To be quite honest I’m embarrassed.”
There are also worrying signs that the financial pressures are compromising quality. Ceeda, a research group, found last autumn that;
- 18 per cent had lowered staff-child ratios
- 30 per cent of childcare providers had cut investment in training
- 13 per cent had lowered their qualification mix
- 10% were not confident they would still be trading in a year’s time
The Federation for Small Businesses recently called for an urgent review of the 30-hour policy, underlining the rising costs childcare providers face due to the higher national living wage, new pensions rules and the sharp rise in business rates. The FSB report echoed the scathing findings of MPs on the Commons Treasury select committee, which disputed the Department for Education’s claim that the hourly rate of funding covered the costs of delivery. It noted that the rate was based on estimates of non-staff costs dating from 2012, and that it is fixed until 2020, even though wage and pension costs are set to rise further. To me this is absolutely ludicrous, it’s the ‘head in the sand’ mentality that is going to fail a whole generation of children – and their families.
Thousands of parents and providers have now joined the Pre-School Learning Alliance’s Fair Future Funding campaign to demonstrate their concerns. I’ve joined – if this post has concerned you, or if you may be affected by this – why not join yourself?
Their future is in our hands.
By Jo FitzGerald ‘Tiny Sponges’ Director and Author of ‘How To Keep Safe … In A Sometimes Scary World’