Instead of celebrating, I am instead reviewing and reflecting and using this experience to inform what happens next. I’ve also been on the end of the line for local authorities and providers searching for workable solutions to meet the challenges of the pandemic. We are all working hard to make sense of current conditions and what it means to the early years and childcare sector, children, their families and the whole country.
Before Covid-19, I thought it unlikely we had sated the political appetite for further increments in the hours added to early years and childcare entitlements – whether they be universal or targeted (two-year-olds and 30 hours). But the direction of travel for the sector has been diverted in ways we could never have imagined. So what next?
During lock down, early years and childcare was quickly recognised as part of the keyworker workforce and an essential service to enable other keyworkers to play their part in essential and ongoing services. That was good news. However, in reality, only around a third of providers have been open. They have been working with around a tenth of the children they would usually work with. That’s not come from research, but that is my sense, from all the conversations I have had, of what has happened in the sector. Demand for keyworker childcare was lower than initially thought as many families worked out their own childcare solutions at home. Lockdown meant just that - not only were we asked to stay at home, people preferred to do so, or had no other option.
Providers have had an extremely difficult time managing the balance of service delivery, or not, and their financial sustainability for now, next, and later. The task of navigating the various support available from local and national government (much of it unimagined and exceeding all our expectations) and making sense of reams of guidance would give Columbus nightmares. All this within the context of coping with the uncertainty and unknowns of what is to come. Through recovery, families will look at childcare through a different lens. Will they want smaller groups of children in settings? Will they consider childminding like they have not done so before? Will they want to use childcare for fewer hours and weeks, or vice versa? Will they want their children to stay at home, or start later?
The key questions are all about what is next? If we were to invent early years and childcare now from scratch, would it look like this? I guess not. The past 20 years has been a journey with high levels of incremental change sometimes at large scale, sometimes small. Now, with the huge and unknown impact of Covid-19 on childcare need and demand, parental employment, and vulnerable children we probably need to tear up the rulebook.
First, and most importantly, the sector needs as much stability and financial security as possible. We are going to need as much flexibility as possible, as recovery ebbs-and-flows in-and-out of lockdown or social distancing. The most vulnerable families will feel just that and their wanting and attendance of early years and childcare may be unpredictable. The economic fallout is likely to bring families in and out of eligibility of two-year-olds and 30 hours. This will profoundly affect provider models as demand shifts and changes impacting on place sufficiency, capacity and use. As settings work out how to balance health and safety, with service provision and finances, they will need funding that covers the costs of vacant places, whether that be temporary or in the longer term. It is rare a provider does not rely on parent fee income. This cannot be understated to those who seem to think they are wholly publicly funded. They are not. The impact on this private income could be devastating as the paid-for childcare market may plummet, take months or years to recover, or at least change massively.
I would commission a literature review of all recent reviews and take the best from them, and complete a root-and-branch examination of all things early years for the parts they don’t reach. I would look beyond UK borders as well.
There should be a year-long dialogue, debate and discussion to coproduce a new plan and vision. The plan must address all the inequalities and anachronisms and respond to the changed world. The whole sector needs to do more to collaborate and agree.
I don’t think this should come on-the-cheap, nor at the expense of some parts of the sector less able to manage the many demands and external pressures. Investment is needed, and more of it, for longer. I’ve always said, the more you fund early years, the more we will deliver in return. Funding should invest in quality at all points and be linked to operational costs fairly across the diverse structure of the sector from individual childminders through to large chains across the whole country. Systems need to be robust to ensure quality and accountability but must not act as a deterrent for parents and children in accessing their entitlements, nor a barrier for the workforce to enter, succeed and remain in the sector.
The systems need to be simpler for all, for ease of access to reduce unnecessary burdens and barriers for providers and parents. The minimisation of risks related to government funding should not be disproportionate to the systems put in place to mitigate them. That has never been truer than now.
Everyone needs to have long-term vision and to be patient. These ambitions can only be achieved with a generations-long, high value investment to finally establish the sector and shake off its Cinderella past and create true equality.
We need workforce parity too. I want to see ways in which we achieve level playing fields within the sector, so all parts of it have equality, respect and the ability to deliver differentiated services tailored to families’ needs. The workforce would need to be on par with other parts of the education system, properly resourced, and qualified early years practitioners should be no different to qualified teachers.
We must reach children who need our help. The best early identification and intervention services need to reach children earlier, their needs identified, and proper and effective multi-agency action taken to protect them, support them, and enable them to succeed physically, emotionally, intellectually, and economically. I have seen growing numbers of children presenting special educational needs and disabilities, and speech and language delay. COVID-19 will most likely widen the gap for cohorts of children.
There is a moral duty to do what we can to ensure services are responsive, adequate and effective, so they provide equality of opportunity and tackle disadvantage.
The effects of Covid-19 could very likely be multi-generational and are at risk of impacting on children’s and families’ opportunities extensively. By taking these actions, we will be much closer to the rewards we all want and need by supporting our youngest and most vulnerable children, and their families. We will all need to work hard to recover and to help families, the economy and the country to rebuild. We know how this can be done, we need half a chance and a following wind to prove it.
James Hempsall is director at childcare consultancy Hempsalls