This letter will be formally delivered to No.10 Downing Street by the two Claire Kenyons behind Early Years Equality at 2pm this afternoon (June 24th).
Dear Prime Minister
We are writing from Early Years Equality, a campaign group representing the views of the Early Years Sector and the voice of our youngest children. At this moment in time, sectors across the country are striking, protesting, and calling for better working conditions and pay that reflects their role – nurses, doctors, teachers, postal workers and railway workers to name a few. The Early Years Sector has almost been crippled by decades of underfunding from the government resulting in our professionals constantly being underpaid – through no fault of their employers – and early years settings struggling (often failing) to remain sustainable. As a sector we have often remained silent and those who have spoken on our behalf have usually been unheard. This can go on no longer, if we continue to remain silent about our treatment it is not just us that will suffer, it is the youngest children in this country – the next generation. We are uniting the sector and highlighting your continued treatment of children under 5 to parents so that they realise they are being lied to. The protest you may have noticed today is just the beginning. We will no longer accept our treatment; we will no longer go unheard.
No one can explain it better than our own Claire Kenyon, director of The Children’s Garden nurseries in Norwich and Stamford and one of the founders of Early Years Equality. We ask you to read her words, understand our requests and put children’s rights at the centre of policy discussions and decisions.
I hope you had the opportunity to see our beautiful Rights on Ribbons Tree, which was our Early Years Equality protest's central focus on Saturday. This 11 feet high installation was the culmination of months of discussion in the early childhood sector about the rights of very young children.
We are concerned that children have been forgotten in the conversation about 'childcare'. However, putting the child at the centre of discussions makes it easy to make decisions about them. When we do right by children, we protect their future and the future of society. There have been some well-intended loud voices who seem determined that children should be birthed, and, shortly afterwards, placed in a kind of 'infant storage unit' for as little money as possible so their parents can return to work to concentrate on their careers and contribute to the economy. Valuable Early Childhood Development and parental employment need not be mutually exclusive, but they both need to be given equal credence in policy discussion and decision. The rights of parents should not overshadow the rights of children. Sadly, recent budget announcements about ‘childcare’ paid almost no attention to the needs and rights of young children, and what would be in their best interests.
It's tough to know where to start to help the penny drop with those in Government about the importance of early childhood, and the issues are so numerous that keeping this letter concise will be a challenge. It seems appropriate to start with an extract sent to all governments around the world by Maria Montessori in 1947
"…The child is the forgotten citizen, and yet, if statesmen and educationists once came to realise the terrific force that is in childhood for good or for evil, I feel they would give it priority above everything else. All problems of humanity depend on man himself; if man is disregarded in his construction, the problems will never be solved".
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 draw attention to articles 3 and 4 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and ask the Government to ask itself honestly if it has considered these articles.
The dehumanisation of babies and young children has an ugly history in Europe, even in the past thirty years. Policies made with the economy rather than children's rights at their heart should make us pause. During the recent budget announcement to extend 'free childcare' to all children over nine months, there was almost no mention of the children and what would be the best policy for them in their earliest years. This is an insult to them and, frankly, quite disturbing.
What are we asking for?
1. Please change the ‘childcare’ narrative and talk about Early Childhood Development.
The downgrading of the sector from 'early years education' to 'childcare' since 2015 has been catastrophic. It is a totally misleading narrative which is no longer about the children's needs or development. 'Childcare' in the UK is now considered a service for parents who need/want to return to work. It is seen as babysitting, and the complexities of working with very young children are misunderstood and poorly valued. It is considered too expensive for parents, yet it has been underfunded by the Government for over a decade, pushing up costs for parents and limiting career progression and pay opportunities for good staff.
Staff feel like glorified babysitters despite many highly qualified teachers, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, graduates and post-graduates working in the sector. Hugely talented staff leave in droves because pay and recognition are abysmal. They certainly do not want to be called 'childcare workers'. Usually, when a group of people express their offence at being referred to in derogatory terms, the terms are abandoned and apologies made. The overwhelming majority of trained early childhood professionals find the term 'childcare' discourteous. A change in societal narrative would encourage more people into the sector - an issue that is becoming increasingly difficult to overcome. Few talented staff are coming in to replace those leaving, and entry to the sector by men is extremely low. 'Childcare' is seen as a domestic task done mostly by women. Early Childhood Development professionals need to comprise men and women. Male professionals are vital.
Settings are now 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 hugely damaging to their development. The first two years of a child's life are the most critical for forming attachments (Prior and Glaser, 2006).
Put the child at the centre of decisions that will affect them.
How much credence is given to the child's emotional development? Poor attachment patterns are leading to an alarming increase in mental health problems in young people. The early years are crucial, placing a considerable responsibility on policymakers for children. Government should not take decisions in response to those shouting the loudest and demanding 'free childcare'. These people know the least about ECD. The Government should listen to the Early Years professionals and consider the evidence and research. They need to engage with those who have made Early Years their vocation and devise an ECD system that works for families, providers, and, most importantly, children. Those working with our youngest citizens must know what they are doing. They should be on a committed and celebrated career path that acknowledges the expertise needed to support young children appropriately. Investment in the early years could be the most transformational policy ever seen in this country.
"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)
A baby's brain grows from 25% to 90% of its size during the first five years. Society should not be leaving the healthy development of these brains to chance. We know that children of intelligent, educated parents tend to do well. Why are we not insisting that their earliest educators are of the same standard? We also know that children institutionalised in Eastern Europe (even those rescued at an early age) rarely recovered fully. I have worked in some of these institutions. Those looking after them were not awful people. But they were uneducated and had limited resources. These people didn't understand the importance of attachment. They were 'childcare workers'. They fed the children and kept them safe in the ways that they thought were necessary. We're already suggesting relaxing the ratios. Have we started down the same road? Acceptance of the unthinkable must begin somewhere. I have already seen the 'production line' of nappy-changing or feeding by those who don't have the skills or knowledge to use these moments to impact children's developing brains positively. Unfortunately, it does remind me of a Romanian orphanage, albeit cleaner. 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".
2. Stop calling it ‘free’ if you’re not funding it adequately. Be honest and call it a subsidy. Preferably give a tapered subsidy weighted towards those on lower incomes rather than ‘free’ for nearly everyone.
The UK is incredibly lucky with the number of dedicated early years settings in all shapes and sizes. Some are in village halls, and some are in state-of-the-art purpose buildings. Some are in homes. All of these settings have different cost bases and this is not accounted for. Most setting owners and leaders have invested their life savings and dedicated their lives to young children. It is, for many, a vocation, and this is a priceless resource. The Government has taken advantage of it, so now children are losing fantastic settings, which will cost the taxpayer billions to replace. The surviving settings are the more expensive ones that must resort to ever-more inventive charging methods to cover costs. The Government's underfunding of ECD is creating a massive division in who can afford access to high-quality early years settings. Those not charging extras find it hard to afford and retain 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. Those in the sector, such as the Early Years Alliance, the NDNA and CNLF warned them of this at the outset. Many maintained nurseries and council-run settings have closed despite the significant extra funding they receive. It's just not enough. Some nursery owners (who work for free) have been making a loss and rely on their partner's income to stay open. A business owner in any other industry would never be expected to continue this way.
Those that will suffer are the poorest children in society, whose parents can't afford to make up the difference. Settings in deprived areas have closed, widening the attainment gaps between rich and poor. There has been no consideration for the families in these areas, relying on the goodwill of the many exceptional practitioners who work for nothing to support them. There needs to be a proper subsidy weighted in favour of these families. Currently, there are just pennies.
The one thing that the sector has long needed and asked for is appropriate funding for 3&4-year-olds. 3&4-year-olds are the majority (about 85%) of funding claims. We should be getting about £8.70 per hour by now, but the average paid outside London is just £4.56. More than anything, this increase was what the sector wanted and needed. Funding has only gone up 53% since its introduction (which was initially a voucher towards preschool). NMW, however, has increased by almost 200% over the same time (approximately 20 years).
Sadly, rather than the hoped-for increase to a fair hourly rate for 3&4-year-olds, we got a 30% increase for 2-year-olds, who comprise a tiny proportion of funded children. 3&4-year-olds got just 21p. This was clever. It meant that ministers could announce that they had increased the funding by 30%. To add insult to injury, even though the 30 hours' free childcare' hasn't worked and led to thousands of closures, the Government extended this offer to ALL children under five. And, adding yet more salt to the wound, relaxed the ratios - a move that we were assured had been dismissed. If ever there was a policy to make us feel ignored, this was it. It was completely contrary to what we needed and had asked for.
In stark contrast, other OECD countries have chosen to offer subsidies tapered to support those most in need. 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. €9.12 is similar 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 or less. This helps to keep a range of choices for families. It also spreads the tax spending more fairly. It would be better to pay MORE for those parents who cannot afford it and less for those whose parents can. This would stop the appalling speed with which settings are closing their doors. Why is the Government so fearful of the word 'subsidy'? Surely we will collapse under the pressure of providing everything for 'free'. It's not working well for any of the services in the UK.
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 ECD, and in Sweden and Norway it is subsidised to ages 6/7. A much better start for young children. In Italy's Reggio Emilia, children are seen as part of the community and 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".
There are conflicting demands - parents and charity groups demanding 'affordable childcare' and early years settings needing proper payment and recognition for their work. We are simply asking for two things that should enable both.
Founder, Early Years Equality
Thank you for reading the above. We hope that you can now see the issues that we face and the urgency of our situation. As a reminder – this protest is just the beginning. If we continue to go unheard, we will be ensuring parents understand the situation you are putting us in and the way that you are choosing to treat their children. We will be uniting the sector and we will be enabling early years providers across the country to take action to ensure that their settings remain sustainable, their provision remains quality and their professionals can be paid appropriately for their roles. We are open to discussion with you if you would like to contact us on email@example.com.
Early Years Equality (on behalf of the early years sector and children under the age of 5 in England)