Chancellor Sunak must be brave and invest in the future by starting with the early years

June O'Sullivan
Thursday, July 9, 2020

The other night I was watching my new late-night Netflix addiction, How to Get Away With Murder.

I have reached Series 5 where the main protagonist is taking on the unfair judicial system and an underfunded prison service. In one episode, she asked her students to fight an issue of social justice and, right there in my cosy half-light, I sat bolt upright as one of her students pitched for the rights of small children to have access to high quality nursery education no matter their background.

Contrast that with the two recent reports from the Sutton Trust and the Early Years Alliance who concluded that this generation of children face unprecedented threats to their childhoods and life chances.

This is the year we were supposed to solve child poverty. Instead, it is rising and support services that might mitigate the consequences of poverty are at breaking point – stretched by rising need and reduced government funding. Nurseries are ignored, Sure Start children’s centres are a shadow of themselves, extended schools with breakfast clubs, after-school homework and play programmes are hugely reduced. Covid-19 has added to the pressure, bringing a new waterfall of uncertainty and highlighting the frailties of the system.

Nurseries, already teetering on the edge, are collapsing in the pandemic. In the poorest places, where they are already thin on the ground, more than a third are likely to close through lack of funds. We are already hearing stories of closures and The National Day Nurseries Association says 71 per cent of nurseries will be running at a loss until September. We are all rightly worried about long-term occupancy and cash flow. CEEDA reports current average occupancy at 37 per cent, which is causing incredible financial strain, and the Early Years Alliance survey of 6,300 nurseries makes grim reading.

What will happen to those children who are the victims of the widening achievement gap if they have no nursery to help them level-up? So much for the UNICEF Convention of the Rights of a Child to an education or the raft of international research which links high quality early education to children enhanced successful life chances.

The Sutton Trust is calling for a modest £88m in transition funding, which would at least give nursery children the same pupil premium as school-age children. Of course, what we need is consistently well-trained staff who can lead a strong pedagogy that is designed to respond, enrich and extend the children’s social, emotional, communication and physical needs. Some of us do this!

But, if you don’t care about the children of the poor, consider them someone else’s problem, let’s focus on the economy.  That is everyone’s problem. Over 70 per cent of parents with a child under 5 works. This is because we operate in an economy that requires us to have two incomes to manage living costs. In our post Covid-19 world, many will face unemployment with an increased chance of becoming dependent on benefits and their children will automatically have their nursery hours cut to 15 hours. But they will struggle to find nurseries which offer the 15 hours only as it’s almost impossible for nurseries to deliver this offer at the underfunded government rate. The shortfall is £662 million and growing.

The End Child Poverty Coalition is arguing for a Budget which puts the voices of children and their families at its core. They are arguing for an ambitious, radical plan of funding and investment that will be transformational for the generation of children growing up in today’s modern Britain.

Chancellor, if our nurseries are to survive and if all children (irrespective of their social backgrounds or ability) are to receive a quality nursery education then we urge you to provide emergency funding to the tune of £100m to stop childhoods being disrupted and life chances being derailed.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website

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