It is time for early years to be seen, heard and properly supported.

It is time for early years to be seen, heard and properly supported.

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Harry Mills started this petition

The early years sector is an invaluable part of our modern-day society. Local, flexible, high quality and affordable childcare gives families choice and freedom and enables them to work and contribute to the success of society. For children, it provides them with a solid foundation on which to build the skills to set them up for life. It has been proven that the years from birth to five are the most important years of a person’s life. The brain develops most rapidly before birth and during the first two years of life. Good health, good nutrition and nurturing are especially important during this time. 80% of the human brain’s structure takes shape between the ages of 0-3 and 90% of the human brain’s structure takes shape until the age of 5. Therefore, the funding, support and sustainability afforded to the sector should reflect and underpin the responsibility.
 
Over the years the sector has become one of the most highly regulated but under-funded sectors – with many contributing factors that need to be highlighted to fully understand and appreciate the crisis currently facing early years.
 
2010
Government introduced entitlement to free early education and childcare. Whilst a support to families, the amount paid by local authorities does not adequately cover the cost of delivery.
 
2016
Childcare Minister, Liz Truss insisted that everyone had to have their GCSE grades A-C in Maths and English to enter the profession. Whilst this was introduced with best intention it did not consider the vocational aspect of a career in childcare and limited those that were passionate about working in the sector. 
 
2020
Brexit – European staff returned to their home countries and the visa requirement set the wage bar too high for us to be able to employ European staff. In 2018, more than 37,000 EU workers were working in childcare in England, making up 5.1% of all workers. European staff create a diverse early years workforce which is essential to give children the very best start in life and understanding of the world.
 
Coronavirus pandemic - The coronavirus pandemic spotlighted the sector and showed its unwavering resilience and commitment to ensuring the very best care and education for the future generation – despite an uncertain and unprecedented situation unfolding and minimal support from Local Authorities and Government. Due to the pandemic, many workers chose to leave the sector due to stress and associated mental health issues. They also left in favour of higher-paid, less-pressure jobs – despite those working in the sector being classed as “essential” workers – a token but empty gesture from the Government.
 
2021
New statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage was introduced - whilst we recognise the need for an updated framework this came during a pandemic where providers were already under immense pressure. The framework favours ideal conditions in the sector, which we are currently far from - and no allowances have been made under the new framework to even consider the crisis currently being experienced. Indeed, we have heard of cases where previously Good or Outstanding settings have been graded Inadequate by Ofsted for not being able to staff settings properly or where newer staff (in situ merely to meet the ratio rules) cannot demonstrate adequate awareness of the new framework. As outlined above, nursery owners and managers are facing the sector’s greatest ever staffing-crisis.
 
Headlines shared that ministers are planning to change staff to child ratios for under twos to cut childcare costs. The sector would like to make it clear that reducing ratios would not have an impact on the costs of childcare. In addition, it would be something that nursery owners would not be prepared to do as it would jeopardise the safety of the care provided and the ability for Educators to provide high quality care and education. We believe the Government imagines this as an easy “shortcut” to fix the childcare crisis they created, without having to invest any further in an already under-funded sector. The Government tried to make a change like this 8 years ago – we hope it won’t make the same mistake again.
 
The above is merely a snapshot of headline events and does not consider the annual increases in National Minimum Wage (which make it impossible for providers to pay much above it) and the consistent cuts to budgets and local authority services that early years rely on such as Health Visitors, Speech and Language Therapists and free (but informative and essential) training and resources. 
 
So, what can be done to properly address the systemic issues?
We believe there are currently 5 key areas affecting the sector that need addressing (as a minimum). These are: 
 
15/30 Hours Government Funding (often misrepresented as free)
These days, many childcare businesses offer a private fee-paying service alongside the Government’s 15/30 hours “funding”. However, in doing so are offering the “funded” hours at a considerable loss, as the amount paid by the Government to providers is not sufficient and does not meet the cost of delivery. For example, in 2020 the increase given to the funding rate was between 2p and 17p per child. The 15/30 hours funding needs to be increased by pounds not pence. The advertising of these hours as free for parents is incredibly insulting to the sector and has caused misinformation to parents and families.
 
Data released today from the National Day Nurseries’ Association (NDNA) revealed that £55 million of early years funding was either left unspent or allocated against other budget pressures in 2020/2021 by local authorities.
 
There is also a feeling that delinking a proportion of funding from child numbers to be replaced with core infrastructure or capacity funding would be a positive and progressive change. In doing so, this would protect settings from volatility, stabilise provision and enable future-focused investment. 
 
Recruitment and Retention
As we write this letter, we are experiencing the biggest recruitment and skills shortage of this decade. Recruitment for the sector is at an all-time low. We need to encourage people to the sector and incentivise them to stay. The Government needs to do more to show early years as a viable, rewarding and well-paid career. The opportunities the early years sector can provide are endless, not to mention genuine job satisfaction. 
 
We are concerned that the Government’s expectations of the sector cannot be achieved, with more people leaving in favour of less stressful and higher paid roles. According to Indeed, the average nursery worker salary in the United Kingdom is £9.81 (per hour). The same individual could earn up to £11 (per hour) working in retail – for example Aldi who were advertising roles at £11 in February 2022. For those living in London the London Living Wage creates even bigger losses as the gap between funded hours and hourly pay is larger.
 
It has been reported that childcare workers are in a position of high financial insecurity, with a high proportion of workers claiming state benefits or tax credits (around 44.5%).  How can those working in the sector be expected to perform to a high level when they are concerned about their financial security – which will undoubtedly affect their mental health and ability to provide the highest levels of care and education.
 
There is still much ambiguity around whether people’s qualifications are “full and relevant” too. This is another barrier for entry into the sector and The Department for Education needs to do more to support providers when it comes to checking this, as it forms part of the Early Years Foundation Stage. 
 
The sector is ageing and faces an increasingly uncertain future. In 2018, around 90,000 childcare workers were aged 55 years old or above. A significant number of workers are due to exit the sector over the next decade which leaves an uncertain future for early years – especially when (on average) only 8,000 apprenticeships are started each year in education and training. 
 
The Government needs to do more to attract people, and particularly men, to the sector, just like it has done for the National Health Service. 50,000 more nurses in the NHS by 2024 is a great milestone and will without a doubt enhance the service provided – why can’t the same emphasis be placed on early years which is experiencing the same shortages. 
 
Adequate Support from Local Authority and Government
The support needed by early years is not purely financial. The sector needs support from local authorities and Government when it comes to successfully implementing and complying with legislation, supporting those children with additional needs and support in accessing relevant, informative, local and free training and development opportunities. Statutory training for early years such as Paediatric First Aid should be subsidised when a setting is providing a high percentage of Government funded places. Discounted DBS should also be available, as this is a mandatory requirement of the sector and often falls to the employee to pay.
 
It is also clear that the Government does not understand the time, resources and training needed to adequately support those children with additional needs (SEND). Providers simply cannot be left to “fend for themselves” when it comes to supporting children with additional needs. All children deserve the very best care, with providers always aiming to deliver this with or without the right support from their Local Authority or Government. Additionally, Educators’ and Managers’ time spent attending SEND or Child Protection meetings is increasing across the board. Providers acknowledge that these are essential however they take considerable time away from the setting – time that is often compensated by staff not having adequate breaks or having to catch up in their own time, such as evenings and weekends. This is not sustainable and providers should not have to sacrifice their livelihood just to keep their head above water and business compliant. 
 
As support is decided and provided by local authorities, there is no consistent approach across the sector which exacerbates issues being experienced. The above experiences are being had by providers from Cornwall to Nottingham and beyond. We need a united and national taskforce and service to support the sector as a whole, with representatives at local level who are able to report and feedback based on the experience of providers in that location. 
 
Ofsted
Thinking about regulation in the sector, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework was reformed in September 2021, adding additional workload and pressure to a sector still coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst we understand the need for an up-to-date and relevant framework there was no consideration as to how this would add unnecessary workload onto the already burned-out professionals still working in the sector. Whilst Ofsted inspections were postponed throughout much of the pandemic, the changes to Ofsted legislation were also wholly unnecessary at this time. Not to mention the sky-high expectations from Inspectors who seem to have no comprehension on how the pandemic has impacted people working in the sector and their businesses. To return to inspections with a “business as usual” approach and introduce ludicrous new policies like the recent change for providers to inform Ofsted about the health of their staff further highlights how out of touch the Government and Department for Education is with the real-life situations facing the early years sector today. Early Years received minimal support throughout the pandemic and as such cannot be expected to deliver the standards that are outlined from a framework that was changed mid-pandemic, favours an “ideal world/situation" and does not make allowances for events which severely impact the running of a business. 
 
It was encouraging to see that Ofsted recently said it would “make early years its focus over the next five years” but what does this really mean? We fear that further unnecessary hoops and tick boxes will be introduced to further stretch providers without any real support to help achieve the standards that will undoubtedly be set and raised.
 
Ofsted need to work harder to understand the sector – a token survey or feedback given through Inspectors is simply not enough. Local groups (that incentivise people to join) need to be established and Ofsted need to do better to understand providers and what they can do to support businesses, as opposed to destroying them based on a snapshot of one day, from one inspector. It is incredibly telling that since the EYFS framework was changed and the coronavirus pandemic happened, Ofsted has issued fewer outstanding gradings and more inadequate gradings – as reported by the Early Years Foundation.  
 
Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic spotlighted the sector and showed its unwavering resilience and commitment to ensuring the very best care and education for the future generation – despite an uncertain and unprecedented situation unfolding. The sector was snubbed for additional funding to see it through, not prioritised for vaccination and was isolated from much needed services throughout the pandemic such as essential PPE and support from local authority services such as Health Visitors and Speech and Language Therapists. The only token gestures received were delayed face coverings and CO2 monitors (apparently, so that providers could monitor air flow through their setting). Yes, many businesses could claim business rate relief and furlough staff, but this was a drop in the ocean especially when combined with inadequate pay outs from private insurance companies and having to refund paid fees to parents whilst still maintaining all usual payments. Not to mention, the fact that the Government actively encouraged providers to remain open and, in some cases, asked providers (who did remain open) to take children whose funding was being taken by another provider – without any payment. 
 
The sector managed to come out the other side of the pandemic – not because of Government support but because of its incredible commitment to early years and the children and families attending. However, it is now dealing with an unmanageable fall out. Staff are now experiencing more mental health related issues than ever before and are completely burnt out. This, combined with more complex needs from children who were either born during the pandemic or were kept at home during the national lockdowns, is putting even more strain on an already stretched and overworked sector.
 
It is time for the Government to acknowledge that the early years sector has not been given the recognition or support it deserves. It is time for early years to be seen, heard and properly supported.
 
●      All families deserve local, flexible, high quality and affordable childcare.
●      All early year’s businesses deserve a fair hourly rate for the service they provide.
●      All early year’s professionals deserve a fair wage for their work (above National Minimum Wage), in addition to genuine training and career prospects.
●      And most importantly, all children deserve the very best start in life.
 
We believe there needs to be radical change in the early years sector. If not, children and families across the United Kingdom will suffer. Attainment will plummet and local authorities will have huge caseloads on their hands that they are simply not able to manage. Providers will close and there will be a lack of high-quality providers. As a sector, we had hoped that the Government would use the recent Spring Statement to reallocate the substantial underspend from the Tax-Free Childcare Scheme to the early years sector. Alongside, providing additional financial support by increasing the amount given to Local Authorities for the 15/30 hours funding. Again, we have been forgotten and let down.
 
The Government (with consultation with the sector) needs to establish the exact aims of the sector and how these can be achieved.  Either we are a childcare or education institution – we cannot be both (without a complete overhaul of the sector). If we are childcare, then the inspection criteria needs amending to reflect this. If we are education, then we should be on a pay scale the same as schools and therefore funding should be paid the same to all settings.
 
There will come a point of no return and the Government cannot say they were not warned. The time to act is now. The time to proactively support providers is now. The time to provide an adequate funding increase of pounds not pennies is now. The time to take early years seriously is now.

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