A letter to Boris
Friday, December 20, 2019
Dear Prime Minister, Welcome and I wish good fortune as you build the right team around you to deliver your election promises. While I realise there are big issues that will be occupying your mind such as Brexit, I wish to be a bit parochial and draw your attention to the world of early years.
You didn’t say much about the sector in the manifesto, although I realise you were keener on big tickets. That said you did pledge to create a new £1 billion fund for holiday and breakfast and after school childcare. In truth, good wraparound is a nursery until a child reaches at least five if not six. Another recently promoted Prime Minister of Finland didn’t go to school until she was six and she like you has won the highest job in the land.
Now, while you are keen to invest in the NHS and wish to find more doctors and nurses, considering our sector within a long-term strategy may help you deliver on your promises. For example, investing in early intervention by engaging nurseries to help reduce the child obesity problem would save the NHS at least £53m a year and reduce the problems of diabetes, heart disease and asthma coming down the line.
I can see you are a practical man who wants sensible solutions. To meet the needs of parents’ access to childcare why not do a few things. First, if you are unwilling or unable to fund a shortfall of £571million then maybe you would give the DfE the permission to allow us to call the hours parents need to pay for on top of their grant as “top up”. Parents would realise that unless you use the 15 to 30 hours, paying for extra hours could be much easier if we all stopped pretending the emperor has no clothes and simple call and market “top-up hours”.
As it stands, costs for the two-year-olds are 47 per cent higher than the three-year-olds and parents rarely pay this premium. Settings all try and box and cox with additional hourly rates at different levels, charges for food and additional activities and all in all a confusion for parents and a distraction from running an efficient business that puts all its energy into supporting staff to deliver the highest quality education.
So, for example, the research from Ceeda indicated that:
Average cost for two-year-olds: £7.46
Current Rate: £5.38
Average cost three- and four-years-old: £5.54
Current Rate: £4.57
This takes me to another solution, why not use the current portal better. Colleagues from the Champagne not Lemonade Funds campaign and Tom Shea posted an advert in the Times recently to such an effect have suggested that parents use their Tax-Free Childcare accounts to have loaded funds that are their entitlements. Then they can spend that in any registered provision they choose and top it up as necessary to fund their required hours. We could cap this if necessary. This is a system that works well in Europe and makes the concept of taxpayer support much more effective. We would need to ensure that the portal worked for lower-income family’s dependent on benefits so they would not lose out.
It could work for many parents by simplifying the process for example you would not need local authority involvement, a relief to them I imagine. Reduces fraud because the money will only be released with the approval of an Ofsted registered provider. Providers can charge their normal rate without having to top us the shortfall with higher cost lunches, additional classes etc. The staff can be paid and supported and therefore best of all the children will have a higher chance of accessing two of the three elements of quality, good ratios and higher quality staff.
I know you want to increase staff in the NHS, which includes reducing the turnover rate. We have a similar problem in the early years. In fact, we depend quite a lot on European staff. So, please sort access to settled status to maintain the trickle of staff we have while we build up a pipeline and improve quality. Help us employ people struggling with employment opportunities in the other parts of the country so we could offer residents of cities hit by unemployment a training and housing package.
Tighten up the regulation and inspection of training agencies and those who take apprentices and simplify access to levy for apprentices. Our sector is the second biggest provider of apprentices and done well is the best first step on the employment ladder. Scotland has just piloted this, maybe dinner with Nicola?
Finally, you might have a chat with your Chancellor to sort out business rates for us and the High St while you are about it! Do a cost analysis and see what you lose by not giving generous rate reductions to support nurseries survive as thriving local businesses.
We are as ever willing to help you implement these ideas. They are not difficult or even radical. They are simple common-sense responses to complicated disjointed policies, but they will make the cogs of the economy turn more smoothly for the good of everyone. Isn’t this the central tenet of your Conservatism?
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
June O'Sullivan, chief executive, London Early Years Foundation