We know that, despite the huge challenges presented by Covid-19, the early years sector has remained steadfast, flexible and resilient in doing all that it can for young children throughout this turbulent year. However, today’s Ofsted report confirms our fears of the adverse impact of the pandemic on children in England.
The Ofsted research found over half (53 per cent) of early years respondents felt that children were falling behind in their personal, social and emotional development, with 1 in 4 saying the same for literacy and maths.
We have long been concerned that children, particularly the most vulnerable, are at risk of falling seriously behind because of the pandemic. It’s a worrying reflection of the reality that Covid-19 has merely exposed the existing frailties in the early years and childcare sector. Even before the pandemic, 17 per cent of providers in England’s poorest areas were facing closure and annual staff turnover had reached 24 per cent.
This was and is happening within the context of a real-term reduction in funding. A recent report by the IFS found that government spending on funded early education and childcare places for 3- and 4-year-olds stood at £3.3 billion in 2019–20 (in today’s prices). This is equivalent to £3,800 per child accessing a place, down almost £100 from its high point the previous year due to a real-terms fall in rate of spending per hour.
Furthermore, it is within the background of an already persistent decline in school readiness. Research by the Family and Childcare Trust and the NAHT found that two thirds (67 per cent) of school leader respondents believed the likely reason children are not school-ready is a failure to identify and support children’s needs early enough.
The adverse impact of the pandemic on many young children is a huge worry, but early education and childcare is the route for those children to get back on track.
The benefits of good early education are clear. The Department for Education’s own SEED study shows that different settings produce specific benefits. For example, childminders were found to have a particularly positive impact on young children’s cognitive development, and verbal ability in particular. Children attending a childminding setting were also found to have fewer emotional symptoms (such as anxiety and stress), and more behavioural self-regulation. Group settings were associated with more prosocial behaviour, such as sharing and showing empathy, and fewer peer problems and emotional symptoms.
However, for the sector to deliver these benefits, it will not be enough to return to business as usual.
The current funding formula for early years education and childcare is not working. It is a complex, bureaucratic mesh of offers and schemes that are not fully utilised and do not serve their purpose. For example, we know that despite its good intentions not enough of the 2 year old offer is taken up. Likewise, the tax-free childcare is an ineffective intervention. The latest statistics from HMRC show that just one in six eligible families are using a tax-free childcare account, with just 204,950 families accessing the offer - compared to the 1.3 million estimated to be eligible for the offer.
Now more than ever, the provision of high quality early education to all children should be a given, fully funded and universal.
The early years sector therefore needs an urgent repurposing of existing government support schemes, coupled with a substantial increase in investment in England. The free hours entitlements should be replaced with a larger direct payment enabling all Ofsted-registered providers to retain their staff (on at least a living wage), meet essential overheads and deliver high quality childcare where it is most needed. The fund will ensure that children's places are protected, regardless of income, and there is continuity of care during the coming months and possibly years of uncertainty, allowing children to catch up and return to their previous levels of development.
Furthermore, while it’s evident that early education has a significant impact on children’s outcomes, it can also bring substantial benefits for the wider family. It enables parents, particularly mothers, to be in paid employment, providing additional income for the household.
Families where parents work have a significantly lower risk of child poverty, which also adversely affects child welfare and outcomes. Mothers with pre-school children who are able to work are less affected by the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’, and are more likely to have higher lifelong earnings. Mothers in employment also report higher levels of well-being and lower levels of depression.
Thanks to providers’ resilience and determination, many remain hopeful that that their future is sustainable. That said this is being eroded every day by ongoing underfunding and financial uncertainty combined with frequent temporary closures due to suspected cases of the virus. These closures are made worse when there are lengthy delays to accessing a test or receiving its results. It leaves families let down and providers further out of pocket. All this means it will take time as well as improved funding levels to fully rebuild confidence amongst childminders, nurseries, pre-schools and the families they care for. A return to the hand-to-mouth funding position the sector has suffered for years before the pandemic is simply not viable. In that context it is imperative that the government now takes a proactive stance to support the sector in its vital child development, parental support, and social mobility functions.
 See also E. Melhuish, J. Gardiner & S. Morris (2017).
 Thompson and Ben-Galim (2014).