Local authorities must take seriously the pending crisis facing early childhood education and care (ECEC). There may soon be insufficient early childhood education and care places available to meet parental demand. Across publicly funded maintained settings and the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings, we are fast reaching a tipping point.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has rumbled on, those working in early childhood education and care have increasingly seen themselves neglected by policymakers. The rollout of the national vaccination programme, but still the possibility of more local or national lockdowns, bring further uncertainty to providers’ decisions about whether it is financially viable to continue. There is also increasing evidence of the impact that the pandemic has had on providers wellbeing and staff morale. The challenges of recruiting staff have only been heightened during the last year and the sector is struggling to retain many of those with leadership responsibilities. There is emerging evidence of reduced capacity and closure of settings. The second peak of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit many early childhood and education providers.
Quite apart from the benefits it brings children and their families, ECEC is a key part of an economy’s infrastructure. Without the private, voluntary sector and independent operators such as childminders providing care for all children under 5, local economies may be disadvantaged. Equally concerning, however, is the immense pressure that maintained nursery schools and nursery schools in maintained infant and primary schools are also facing.
Now, more than ever, local authorities need to plan to meet their statutory obligations and ensure that sufficient and affordable provision is secured by a diverse and robust mix of providers who can deliver effective early childhood education for all children under five and their families. By doing so, local authorities will support their local communities and the necessary economic recovery. Local authorities must recognise:
- The early childhood education and care provided by the PVI sector is delivered by private businesses. Just over half are owner-managed enterprises. They could not be more different than maintained nursery schools and the nursery education classes in infant and primary schools. They are heavily reliant on the fees parents pay to meet their outgoings and the second wave of this pandemic at the beginning of 2021 has continued to hit this aspect of their businesses hard. In most cases, the early education ‘free entitlement’ accounts for only a small part of their overall income.
- The challenges that the maintained sector, particularly maintained nursery schools have faced during the pandemic. Many of their futures are increasingly uncertain and local authorities, together with government, must act urgently to provide targeted support to maintained nursery schools whose sustainability has been further jeopardised by the pandemic.
Local authorities: Take responsibility for what you have control over.
Evidence suggests that local authorities lack clarity in their understanding of and advice to providers and that this has added to the uncertainty affecting early education and care providers.
Focus on what can be done:
- Acknowledge the additional costs to providers that the Covid-19 pandemic is generating. Reimburse the additional costs of cleaning products, hand sanitiser, soap and paper towels and agency staff when staff are sick or required to self-isolate.
- Develop and run an early education and childcare recovery programme, that offers all providers business support via a business health check tool.
- Prioritise an early years recovery fund, to ensure the sufficiency of high-quality early years provision that focuses on supporting providers in areas of deprivation and those supporting children eligible for funded early education for 2-year-olds, early years pupil premium and those with special educational needs and disabilities.
The monies and resources that you secure and allocate may be the difference that, once the Covid-19 crisis has abated, ensures sufficient early childhood education and care places remain.
Megan Pacey authored the LGIU Policy Briefing Early years provision – reopening the sector after Covid-19 (3 June 2021)