One of our founders, Claire Kenyon ( owner of The Children’s Garden Nurseries in Stamford and Norwich) has been working hard compiling evidence to contribute to the inquiry into support for childcare and the early years. Today we have submitted it and hope that it will have some impact on their findings. It is lengthy but powerful and shows the importance of putting the children at the centre of decisions about Early Childhood Education and Care (#notchildcare).... Read on and then if you haven't already done so - sign up to the protest on June 24th or send your contributions to our Rights on Ribbons installation.
Written Evidence submitted by Early Years Equality
Early Years Equality is a campaign group set up to give the sector a voice and protect the rights of children under five. Our priority is to ensure that children are the primary consideration when developing policies which affect them and their families. We acknowledge that the committee will receive much evidence from groups with conflicting needs - parents and charity groups demanding 'affordable childcare' and early years settings needing proper payment and recognition for their work. However, there is one simple, albeit missing, question from this debate.
The missing question: How will this affect children?
How will this affect children? This is the crucial question missing from the call for evidence. The answer to this simple question will help decision-makers make the right choices. We know from the evidence that a child's experience in their early years has a profound impact on their ability to achieve their full potential economically, physically and emotionally. We know that high-quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) can make a huge difference, but the evidence also shows that poor-quality ECEC has a negative effect.
We are concerned that children are being forgotten in the conversation about 'childcare'. Putting the child at the centre of discussions makes decisions about them simpler. When we do right by children, we protect their future and the future of society. The concept of Early education developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy is widely celebrated around the world. In Reggio Emilia, children are not seen as empty vessels that need filling or an obstacle to work. They are seen as part of the community, and they are given a voice.
"At the core of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is the image of children as competent. Reggio educators believe that the quality of their schools results in large part from this image of a competent child who has rights, especially the right to outstanding care and education, rather than only needs".
In contrast to this child-centred philosophy, 'Childcare' in the UK is considered a service for parents who need/want to return to work. It is seen, perhaps unconsciously, as babysitting, and the complexities involved with working with very young children are misunderstood and poorly valued.
The downgrading of the sector from 'early years education' to 'childcare' since 2015 has been catastrophic. Parents are questioning why 'childcare' only begins at age three, yet they return to work before their child turns one. They also, understandably, demand that their 'childcare' is year-round rather than term-time only. If this narrative is not changed then the negative effects will continue to be felt. It is our firm opinion that, as in many other OECD countries, the term Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), is a much better description and will help mitigate the blurred lines between 'childcare' and early years education. It is time for a new narrative that embraces young children's potential and focuses on whom they might become if given the most thoughtful early experiences. It’s time to put the rights of children at the front of the discussions.
"By realising the extraordinary impact of early childhood and by learning more about how children grow, think and behave, I truly do believe we are on the cusp of one of the biggest opportunities for positive change in generations."
HRH The Princess of Wales (March 2022)
The question 'How will this affect the children' is the lens we have used to approach the questions in the call for evidence (CfE). As the answers are interlinked, the CfE questions have been placed in the most appropriate place rather than in the order of the terms of reference. They are underlined for clarity.
How affordable and easy to understand is the current provision of 'childcare' in England? To what extent does the early years' system adequately prepare young children for their transition into primary education, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
It is neither affordable nor easy to understand and as explained earlier we challenge the use of the word ‘childcare’ in this context.
Reception, Early Childhood Education, Early Years Provision or 'Childcare'
The current position requires a bit of history. The 1944 Education Act requires that children start full‐time education in the term following their fifth birthday. However, local authorities now admit children at the beginning of the school year following their fourth birthday.
This relatively recent change occurred because of the opportunity created by falling school rolls to meet parental demand for early provision. What began as 'Preschool' is now called 'Reception', and it is not widely understood that Reception is NOT compulsory for children under five. Put simply; children were put into schools earlier to get 'bums on seats', and enable parents to go to work sooner. Does this form part of the 'childcare' provision?
There is increasing concern that children are not 'school-ready'. We must ask instead if schools are not ready to cope with very young children and if they should be there at all. At what point are children in 'childcare', and at what point do we consider them to be in Early Years Education? Parents, the early years sector and the government, do not know the answer to these questions. This leads to another question - What is 'childcare'? What is early years provision? What is early years education? Are they the same?
It remains highly questionable that children should be at school at four. Despite the 'learning through play' rhetoric, only a few teachers take a genuinely pedagogical approach with their youngest pupils. School formality at this very young age can damage the child's interest and desire to learn. What is better for four-year-olds - being outside climbing and playing with sticks, learning to balance and understand their physical boundaries, developing their growing bodies and taking risks OR being in a classroom for most of the day? What about five-year-olds? What about six-year-olds? What would the children choose? What is the right thing for them?
The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by The League of Nations in 1924, included the statement:
"The child must be given the means needed for its normal development, both materially and spiritually".
How much credence is given to the child’s emotional development, and is this related to the increase in mental health problems in young people? These are some of the many questions that must be addressed when determining policy for young children. We know that these early years are crucial. A baby's brain grows from 25% to 90% of its size during the first five years. This is a considerable burden of responsibility on those who are policymakers for these children. These decisions should not be taken in response to those shouting the loudest. These decisions must be taken with the voices of the children in mind - and these are usually the quietest.
According to information provided following a Freedom of Information request submitted by industry body The Early Years Alliance, the UK government itself predicted that the funding rate required by the year 2020 would be £7.49 per hour. The Bank of England's inflation rate calculator (from 2020 to January 2023), shows this hourly rate should now be £8.71. The average rate currently paid to settings outside London is just £4.56. Almost half of these settings received just £4.37 in 2022/23, with some settings receiving a base rate of a shocking £4.08.
This is in stark contrast to the policies around ECEC in many other western societies. For example, in The Netherlands, the government pays 33% to 96% of €9.12 per hour depending on income. If parents choose a more expensive setting, they pay the extra themselves. €9.12 is a similar amount to the cost of providing a space in the UK for children aged 3-4. Depending on their offering, some settings cost a bit more, some a bit less. This helps to keep a range of choices for families.
In Australia, the hourly rate paid by the government is capped at Aus $12.74. Again, this is significantly more than the amount paid in the UK. However, amounts vary depending on income, and parents are expected to pay any gap between the provider's hourly rate and the amount paid by the government, thus retaining a range of choices. Those working more than 24 hours per week are entitled to 50 hours of subsidised ECEC.
In Sweden, Finland and Norway ECEC is subsidised until the age of six or even seven.
In the UK, the government tells parents they can access places for 'free' despite the costs to the provider being nearer £9 per hour. It limits what providers can charge and insists that any charges be voluntary. The sector warned that this would lead to cross-subsidisation in order for settings to remain sustainable. It is this that has created price hikes across the sector for parents.
The government also offers 15 or 30 hours for 38 weeks of the year. This is not sufficient for most families, working out at just 22 hours per week over the year for those who work the longest hours. While the 'free' entitlements (which in reality are a subsidy) do enable parents to go back to work, the cross-subsidisation for younger children has meant that these prices have become ever-more prohibitive.
• There is a significant administrative burden on settings that must distribute and collate forms each term and enter data regarding each child. Every six weeks, a headcount is submitted to the Local Authority (LA). Whilst not difficult, it is time-consuming to chase parents for forms and complete the necessary admin.
• LAs have different rules regarding holidays - another unnecessary challenge to settings. Settings must continue to employ their staff year-round and pay bank holidays, so an LA clawing back money for children who are on holiday adds another pressure. For example, some LAs have said they will not pay for the King's Coronation if settings are closed, while others will. This adds cost and confusion.
• Settings are now responsible for the two-year-old checks previously done by health visitors. Settings receive no remuneration for this; realistically, it takes a staff member out of ratio for a significant amount of time. All of these factors must be considered to keep settings sustainable.
• There is no money for the time taken to attend safeguarding meetings when another staff member needs to be employed to keep the ratios correct. Settings are increasingly asked to chair, organise and host such meetings.
• Supernumerary staff are not calculated in the funding rates, so managers and admin staff needed to facilitate all of the above need to be paid for through fees.
• Since Covid-19, there has been an enormous increase in parents needing support. Their lack of interaction with other parents has meant they need help with a wide range of issues, from potty training, behaviour management, relationship counselling, mental health concerns, and child development.
• Children’s progress has also suffered, especially speech and language.
The nursery or early years setting is the first port-of-call for parents, and the loss of Sure Start Centres has meant that individual settings are now doing a lot of the work which would have been sign-posted to Sure Start. For some places this could be a welcome opportunity for staff to develop professionally and take on new, more specialised roles. However, again, there needs to be funding to support this development. Staff have been offering workshops and parent support out-of-hours and have done this without being paid. This lack of recognition (unaffordable for settings) also contributes to staff feeling undervalued for their extensive work with families, which is a key part of their role.
These factors must be considered when calculating fees in order for providers to remain sustainable. Some nursery owners have been making a loss and rely on their partner's income to stay open. In no other industry would owners be expected to continue this way. Many maintained nurseries and council-run settings have closed despite the significant extra funding that they receive. It's just not enough.
Many nursery owners are women who have invested their life savings and dedicated their lives to their settings. This dedication is priceless. The government has taken advantage of it. They are losing a fantastic resource which will cost them billions to replace. The surviving settings are the chains and the more expensive settings that have to resort to ever more inventive ways of charging to cover their costs. This means that the government's underfunding of ECEC is creating a massive division in who can afford access to high-quality early years settings. Those not charging cannot afford good staff and resources. This gap is widening. The government's attempt to cap the fees for parents has been a race to the bottom, as they were warned.
To add to the confusion, the piecemeal approach to funding it has been historically confusing to parents and providers. The rate paid to providers is not enough to make it 'free' to parents; many parents don't use or understand the tax-free childcare system and therefore don't use it. Simpler and more streamlined subsidies would work much more effectively.
The workforce challenges
The precarious, unsustainable and unprofessional approach to early years is genuinely antiquated. It reflects a misogynistic view of the early years as 'women's work' and something that should be willingly done for nothing. In 2017, some local authorities suggested that providers' take in ironing', have a bucket for donations, and take on volunteers.
Staff feel like glorified babysitters despite many highly qualified teachers, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, graduates and post-graduates working in the sector. These hugely talented staff are leaving in droves because pay and recognition are abysmal. They certainly do not want to be referred to as 'childcare workers'. There are few talented staff coming in to replace them, and entry to the sector by men is extremely low. Settings are forced to employ poorly qualified, inexperienced staff who do not have the skills required to work with very young children. They also have misguided expectations about what the job entails and are often bewildered by the workload and complexity of the role. Staff new to the sector are quickly disillusioned and often (correctly) feel they can earn a lot more in a supermarket for much less stress and responsibility. In turn, this leads to a high turnover of staff. For a child, forming healthy attachments is crucial. High staff turnover is extremely damaging to their development.
The term' childcare' is unattractive to many young people leaving school or university. Childcare is associated with babysitting. Babysitting is a low-skilled job that 'anyone' can do, whereas proper early years education requires expertise and particular personal skills. This became very clear during Covid-19 when parents became desperate for their children to return to nurseries. Being with very young children is exhausting. It is unpredictable and a huge responsibility. It is not sitting on the floor watching children play and chatting with friends. The realisation of this often shocks new staff members who quickly decide that the work is not for them after all. The de-professionalising of the role has led to many problems. There is still a gender gap in the sector (98% women) as it is seen as 'women's work'. There is no clear professional advancement in 'childcare', so it is not considered a career choice for academically able students. The stress of the role is not compatible with the pay that comes with it, and early years staff often feel that they are too thinly stretched to do their jobs well. In turn, this leads to poor job satisfaction and increases in staff turnover. Many staff decided to leave the sector after the Covid 19 lockdown, having realised the stress their work was causing.
SEND. What improvements could be made
One significant stress for owners and managers is the increasing number of children with SEND that they have to turn away because they cannot afford to admit them. The approach to children with SEND should make the government hang their heads in shame. A paltry £1.50 per hour for children with SEND is very poor, but for children with COMPLEX NEEDS who need 1:1 support, there is just £6.50 per hour. This doesn't come close to the NMW needed to employ help (preferably NLW). With the hourly rate paid for 'free' children almost 100% underfunded (on average £4.56 payment vs £8.71 costs) in most areas, settings can't afford to take SEND children. The solution is simple. Fund it properly. Fund at least NLW plus grants for special equipment so that settings can afford to take SEND children. The government's current financial policy on SEND is causing unwilling discrimination. Settings are devastated when they can't afford to take SEND children.
Those currently complaining the loudest about expensive 'childcare' probably know the least about high quality ECEC, despite their self-assurance. The government would do well to listen to the Early Years Sector, and consider the evidence. There is so much research pointing to the importance of the early years and its impact on the future outcomes of children. The government should listen to early years professionals who have made this sector their vocation and help devise a system which fosters an ECEC system which works for families, providers, and most importantly children.
Founder, Early Years Equality