Early years forgotten again

I listened to Johnson’s levelling-up speech with hope in my heart that he would at last focus on the sector that has the potential to make the most difference to children’s life outcomes – early years care and education.

In the speech, Johnson acknowledged that after ten years of Conservative government: “If you are a child on free school meals in London, you now have more than double the chance of going to university than a child on free school meals growing up outside London.” Further on he asserted that: “No one believes, I don’t believe, you don’t believe, that there is any basic difference in the potential of babies born across this country.”

If that is what he believes, what is the government going to do? Invest in early years, I thought! Respond to their own review: the Best Start for Life: a vision for the 1001 critical days!

But after listening to the speech, I thought I must have missed it. I did a quick ‘ctrl + f’ search of the speech transcript for possible relevant words: early? nursery? childcare? maternity? preschool? SEN? disabilities? Not a mention. Not a word.

He had the opportunity to slide it in if he had thought it important. For example, early years education is completely ignored in this rambling sentence about children’s learning:

“What is the key question that young families ask themselves about a neighbourhood? Not just whether it is safe, but whether the schools are good, and we need to give all our children the guarantee of a great education with safe and well-disciplined classes and fantastic teachers. So we are literally levelling up funding for primary and secondary education, with a higher level of funding per pupil and so that every teacher starts on a salary of £30,000, and we must face the reality that, in loss of learning and loss of life chances, some children have been hit harder by this pandemic than others. (…) the world to help them catch up, a catch-up programme that is already worth £3 billion, that was invested as soon as this government came in.”  

With that, he moved on to post-16 education.

Not for the first time in my long career as an early years educator, I cried in anger and despair “What about the early years?”

I have been involved in the early years sector for nearly 40 years and seen many, many initiatives come and go, from Neighbourhood Nurseries to Birth to Three Matters to Sure Start. For decades the funding has been incremental and inconsistent, and the system is now as disjointed, fragmented and neglected as ever.

This government, though, seems wilfully ignorant of the overwhelming body of research and experience that identifies the early years as more important than the primary and secondary sectors in enabling children to meet their potential – laying the foundation at the stage of life and learning that is the most crucial for future success.

In June 2021, the Early Years Alliance, after a two year freedom-of-information battle, discovered that the government has knowingly underfunded the early years sector. The funding rates for 2020–21 were less than two thirds of what officials estimated to be the full cost of funding childcare places for three and four-year-olds at just £4.89 when it should have been £7.49.

The Department for Education knew that the 30-hour offer for three to four-year-olds would lead to price increases for babies and toddlers as providers tried to stay viable. So the parents of the very youngest children are subsidising the older ones in this setting, because of the government’s deliberate underfunding.

This situation has been made considerably worse by the pandemic. In June 2020, the Sutton Trust reported that only 7 per cent of children accessed early education or childcare during the first lockdown, leading to a negative impact on the social and emotional development of those who did not attend. A third of the settings in the most deprived areas are at risk of closure, leading to further disadvantage for those children. The Sutton Trust recommended an urgent support package for the sector. Nothing happened. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) again report this week that volatility in attendance of both staff and children has created severe financial difficulties for many settings, with 4 in 10 having to close during the spring. The sector employs nearly 400,000 people and, despite years of initiatives, just half have a level 3 qualification, and a shocking 16 per cent are unqualified. Those with the lowest levels of qualification have borne the brunt of partial closures and have been more likely to be furloughed or made redundant.

The government is being urged to boost the pay, training and working conditions of early years staff to support the development of our youngest children, particularly those most disadvantaged. Surely a foundation block of any ‘levelling-up’ agenda? But no. For example, training to support children’s speech and language is not available for nearly half of the settings surveyed by the EPI and NDNA.

We are coming around in another circle of inaction. A year ago, children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield set out in her report, Best Beginnings, that to improve children’s life chances we have to start when they are young. In March 2021, Andrea Leadsom, the government’s early years health adviser, produced the Best Start for Life: a vision for the 1001 critical days, which echoed the messages of the Sure Start programmes so savagely cut by recent governments. When asked about how it was to be funded, she responded that she would be lobbying the chancellor in the next spending review.

Now the Duchess of Cambridge is picking up the baton with her Royal Foundation for Early Years, noting that what we experience in our early years shapes the developing brain, which is why positive physical, emotional and cognitive development during this period is so vital. We know, we know, we know.

All the talk about ‘levelling up’, giving children the best start in life, improving children’s life chances, is just that .. talk. Time for action! Lobby your MPs. We have the evidence of what makes a difference – it has to be given priority for funding now!