Our Early Years Lead Laura Barbour makes the case for the early years being crucial to the government’s post-pandemic education recovery plan.

Babies and toddlers may have gone unnoticed, but alongside older children, they have also experienced the negative impact of the pandemic, with the poorest families hit the hardest.

That is why the Sutton Trust, together with the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, are today launching “A Fair Start?”, a new campaign looking at options for reforms to early years provision.

We want to ensure all children can access high quality early years provision, regardless of their background. In the aftermath of the pandemic, this fair access will be more important than ever.

The impact of the pandemic on young children

The pandemic has had considerable impacts on the youngest children, with research released by the Sutton Trust today finding that 64% of pre-school parents have been worried about their child’s development or wellbeing during the pandemic.

Additionally, recent EEF research has found that 96% of schools are concerned about communication and language development in children who first started school last September.

However, our research has found that over half (51%) of parents feel the government has not done enough to support the development of pre-school aged children during the pandemic.

Looking forward, it is also important to consider the experience of during the pandemic, and how early years support could help them in the future. A recent piece of research, Babies in Lockdown, looked at how lockdown has affected parents, babies (under the age of 24 months) and the services that support them, and found it was families already at risk of poorer outcomes who have suffered the most.

Similarly, other recent research on the impact of missed time in settings for those aged 8-36 months years old also found that it’s the least advantaged who suffered the most, with the impacts compounded by the lack of opportunity for social interaction with grandparents, extended families and their contemporaries.

It is these children who will soon be eligible for early years funded entitlements at ages two, three and four, who more than ever are going to need the highest quality support, to ensure that the life opportunities they have already missed do not lead to inequality becoming even more entrenched going forward.

A fairness first recovery

Now more than ever, the early years sector needs to be ready to support the children and families who have missed out. Yet the sector, which was in crisis before the pandemic, has been particularly badly affected during the last year. Sutton Trust research last summer found many settings were at risk of closure and redundancies, especially in the most deprived areas. And indeed, recent figures show increasing numbers of setting closures,  with the small number of maintained nurseries facing similar challenges to remain open with current levels of funding.

It is worth noting that the US, which has historically lagged behind the UK on early years support, is now recognising the value of this sector, and committing to investment in the early years as an essential part of their recovery plan. The American Families plan would introduce universal early education for all 3 and 4 year olds in the US, with the White House estimating that the returns will be three times greater than the investment. Our friends across the Atlantic have recognised funding is required to keep the cost of childcare affordable, whilst ensuring fair wages for early years workers providing valuable, high skilled work. They know that the cost of ignoring the situation means missing a crucial opportunity to narrow the gap and instead allowing it to exacerbate inequality.

We need to do the same. It is the time to “Build Back Better” from the pandemic, and it must start in the early years. An increase in the Early Years Pupil Premium to levels equivalent to those in primary school would help, as well as increased rates of funding and simplifying the process to claim it, so providers can invest in a skilled workforce that can make the most impact. Upskilling the early years workforce through CPD, attracting graduates and providing better paths for career progression is essential for ensuring quality provision.

A Fair Start?

Additional funding through the early years pupil premium and to settings for CPD would be a great start, but bigger reforms are needed to make a real difference for children from the poorest backgrounds as we come out of the pandemic. That’s why the Sutton Trust is working with The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust on a new campaign, to look at ways to level up access to early years provision for all children.

The current system in England is hard to navigate for settings and families, and there is a real tension between different policies. Whilst the two year old offer of 15 hours a week is targeted at disadvantaged children, at age three and four, that focus is reversed. At this age, while there is a universal offer for 15 hours a week for all children, there is also an additional 15 hour ‘childcare’ offer (30 hours in total) just for the children of working parents, thus largely excluding the disadvantaged children who are likely to particularly benefit from additional, high quality hours.

Our new campaign, A Fair Start, will look in depth at the 30 hours policy and assess the possible options for reform, prioritising access to high-quality early education for disadvantaged children, to reduce the early years attainment gap before it takes hold. How can provision be extended to the children who need it most, what are the costs, benefits and challenges of reform? We are keen to hear from a wide range of voices as we develop this work, with a full launch planned later this year. If you have ideas on how best to reform the policy, or you would like to support the campaign, please and let us know.

Going forward

The pandemic has had a considerable impact on all young children, and especially on those from the poorest backgrounds. The recovery plan must include all children and young people, from nursery to college and sixth form. If important stages like early education are left out, the impact will be felt for generations, with potentially disastrous consequences for social mobility.

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