What next in 2021 for early years?

James Hempsall
Wednesday, January 6, 2021

I concluded the year steadfastly focusing on the best of 2020. My themes included the advantages of life being smaller, being at home more, and reduced consumption. I also firmly believed there had been a stronger sense of interpersonal connection.

We had tracked the changes in parental demand and need for childcare and supported providers to respond as best they could. There was a sense that we had been through the worst. In a display of defiant optimism, I was more hopeful about the future. Now 2021 is upon us, it’s already time for a rethink and a new plan. 

We start with rising Covid-19 cases, a tussle around schools opening or not, somewhat unpredictable and increments to tiers and lockdowns, and the promise of vaccinations. An uncertain spring term now seems even more volatile. So, what next?

Equal consideration and respect. What is clear is early years and childcare needs to be considered simultaneously with schools. Artificial divides have always existed between the two, and yet insufficient effort has been applied to address their disadvantages. What affects schools, directly impacts on early years, and vice versa. And so it should. This includes the out of school sector, whose very existence and futures are firmly within the grip of local school decisions. We need a sense of being one integrated service with a mutual consideration for delivery models and the solutions to address the various challenges.

Funding and occupancy. DfE has stuck to its original stated aim of funding on actual place use for spring term. This contrasts with a summer and autumn of funding ‘as if Covid-19 hadn’t happened’. Headline occupancy might be relatively similar to last year, but this can hide the realities of the hours used, funding claimed, and income derived from paid-for childcare. And the unpredictability of demand and actual use resulting from the new strain, increased cases and more stringent lockdowns will only add to the complex tasks of managing early years and childcare provision. In short, numbers will fluctuate hugely, and this will be no-ones fault. Funding stability will be essential, as paid-for income will likely be highly insecure. 

Change and teamwork. It is entirely excusable for anyone to be experiencing change fatigue right now. For one’s own batteries to be running low right now is hardly an ideal start to the year.  But we must face what’s changed and what’s changing square on, and review and adapt our approaches to service provision. We are not alone. And we have almost a year’s experience of managing through a global pandemic after all. 

These principles will help. However, there will be no substitute for a year of hard graft and difficult choices. We can better do this by sharing our experiences and pinpointing the risks together. There are useful ideas out there and collaborative business decision-making is the only way to navigate through the current situation. That’s the new year’s resolutions sorted.

James Hempsall is director at Hempsalls Consultancy

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