As part of Childcare and Early Education Week, our Early Years Lead Laura Barbour takes a look at how the Covid-19 crisis has affected the early years sector, and what needs to be done to help.
Even before the pandemic, the poorest children were already 11 months behind their better off peers at the start of school. High quality early years provision has the potential to narrow that gap. However, the sector has faced considerable pressures due to the coronavirus crisis, with closures last spring negatively affecting the development of many young children now in need of catch up, but in an environment where many settings are under considerable financial strain.
In the first national lockdown, early years settings were treated in the same way as schools and restricted to a limited cohort, with most children not attending. Sutton Trust research released last July looked at the impact of these closures with many parents describing a particularly negative impact on their child’s social and emotional development and wellbeing. There was a concern that lost access to high quality early education would have serious effects on all children, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the risk of widening already existing gaps in school readiness.
And indeed, many of these negative outcomes have since been confirmed, with most providers in a sample interviewed by Ofsted for a report released in October, reporting the pandemic had significantly impacted the development of children who had left and subsequently returned to settings. Additionally, recent YouGov polling funded by Kindred2 has identified a knock on effect on school readiness. The report surveyed more than 500 British primary schools and found that nearly half (46%) of children who started reception class in 2020 were not “school ready”, compared with 35% in 2019. Teachers reported that less time spent at nursery due to lockdown restrictions was the key reason for this decline, and said that it was children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were likely to have suffered the most, where challenging home circumstances were not conducive to a positive home learning environment. And there is a real economic cost to a growth in the school readiness gap, with YouGov estimating that 85% of classes having pupils not school ready could cost schools an additional £285 million in lost staff time.
The Sutton Trust’s research last July also looked at the financial impacts on settings, with many losing fees while children were unable to attend, all on top of existing financial pressures in place long before the pandemic. During closures, providers in the poorest areas reported the largest impacts, with about a third (34%) warning they may have to close within a year, and 42% likely to make redundancies. At the time, the Trust called for an urgent support package of £88 million, equivalent per child to the £1 billion given to schools for coronavirus catch-up. However, while early years providers have been able to access some financial support during the pandemic, to date no catch up funding has been provided to the sector, and throughout the pandemic, early years providers (particularly the private, voluntary and independent sector, PVI) has been excluded from much of the support available to other educational providers.
In this current full national lockdown, early years settings are now required to remain open to all, whilst primary and secondary schools have closed on site provision to all but the most vulnerable and children of essential workers. When explaining why early years settings need to remain open, the government has acknowledged early years provision is an essential service, allowing children to be educated and parents to work. Indeed, the government highlighted the role the sector plays in building a foundation for lifelong learning, as well as supporting children’s social and emotional development. However, due to the pandemic, even with settings remaining open, not all children are attending or registered in their usual numbers, and concerns have been raised that the system the government has now put in place for funding this year, based on current registrations, risks causing additional financial damage to the sector.
Given everything the early years sector has been through in the last year, additional support is urgently needed, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas. This is not only to secure the viability of the sector, but also to ensure that the next generation of children don’t start their education at a disadvantage. The early years should be financially recognised for what it is, the first and most fundamental stage in a child’s learning and development, support which is needed now more than ever given the time many children have been away from settings. Early years providers should be provided with catch-up funding equivalent to the funding being provided to schools, with a focus on increasing the early years pupil premium to a per hour rate equivalent to the primary school pupil premium, which better captures the additional needs of children from low-income homes, and the challenges for providers in preventing further widening of gaps in school readiness. Without further action to provide all young people with the right platform for their education, schools and the wider education sector will be counting the cost for years to come.