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BLOG: PACEY policy - 2020 year in review

Welcome to PACEY’s annual overview of the year in policy, where we look back at 2020 and all the challenges and progress we have made for early education and childcare in England and Wales. It goes without saying that 2020 has been dominated by Covid-19, and as a result PACEY’s campaigning activity has been focused in this area.

We would like to start by again saying well done and thank you to all our members who had to very quickly adapt their ways of working in line with Covid-19 restrictions to provide the best care for young children and support families during this exceptionally difficult year. PACEY was delighted to receive letters of thanks -  from NHS staff  in England and a letter from the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, Julie Morgan AM in Wales, recognising all the sector had done during the pandemic.

These letters were for you our members and  all you have done to keep your settings open to support the NHS, other key workers and now all children and families.  

PACEY’s pre-Covid policy work

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, PACEY had ambitious campaign plans to champion the important work of early year providers. In January, PACEY Chief Executive Liz Bayram and Policy Advisor, Helen Donohoe, met with the Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards at the Department for Education (DfE) to discuss the key issues facing the early years sector in England.

PACEY Cymru had success in January, calling on government to introduce a ban on smacking, following the introduction of this in Scotland. PACEY is continuing its work with key stakeholders to call on government to introduce a ban on smacking in England and Northern Ireland.

We also joined forces with a group of early years experts in England to launch the Early Years Workforce Commission, to undertake a review of the workforce challenges facing the sector and develop solutions to address these.  The report setting out this Commission’s recommendations will be published in the New Year.

Covid-19 threatens the sustainability of early years services

In February, PACEY began to issue guidance around Covid-19 after increasing news reports that cases were beginning to appear in the UK. By the end of March, schools and early years settings were forced to temporarily close their doors due to a UK-wide lockdown issued by Government. By this point, PACEY’s information team, particularly the legal helpline, were extremely busy responding to member queries about the contractual and financial implications of temporary closure.

There was an initial confusion and anxiety amongst our members over service closures, with a lack of government clarity in guidance, particularly in regard to childminders and nannies. Many of our members felt they were putting themselves and staff members at risk, with challenges of accessing PPE and the additional burden of increased hygiene measures risk.

In order to communicate the most accurate and up to date information to our members, we began and continue to work closely with the Department for Education (DfE) as part of the early years coronavirus task force in England; with Welsh Government via regular government meetings as well as with the regulators in both nations. 

With new guidance being published by government or regulators every few days at the height of the pandemic, we have been working hard to supply you with clear, honest, trusted and accurate information and resources in our Coronavirus spotlight that even now, is updated almost daily and has had over 550,000 page views.

The financial implications of Covid-19 for providers

Despite a package of financial support announced by the Chancellor in spring, it became evident that thousands of registered childminders were unlikely to benefit from the Government support for self employed people (SEISS support) and that providers employing staff could not simply apply for furlough for these staff but had to reduce any claim they made to factor in funding they received for early education entitlements. We worked with partners to make clear how challenging this was for the sector and the solutions we felt were urgently needed. We were particularly concerned about newly registered childminders who had set up their own businesses within the last three years, making them ineligible for the SEISS.

A PACEY survey of over 5000 childminders in April confirmed the financial uncertainty faced by many:

  • 40% of childminders said they are not confident of their business being able to survive COVID-19
  • just under 10% had an income of less than £10,000
  • at least one in five are likely to get no financial support from the SEISS

Despite sharing some of the same responsibilities as schools and businesses, very few providers have been able to claim additional support available for these sectors through additional grant funding.  

DfE agreement in England to continue to pay settings for early education at pre-pandemic levels was an early important success that helped many providers have some financial certainty but, as of today, we continue to try to persuade DfE to extend this commitment into the January term rather than revert to funding settings based on the number of children taking am early education places in January. To do so would present most settings with additional financial burdens. In Wales confirmation on payments for funded places were honoured for children currently accessing services that had to close but longer term issues around sustainability remain.  Additional grant schemes were implemented in Wales following concerns raised by PACEY Cymru and others in the sector, in particular for newly registered settings while further funding has been made available in Wales to support the sector in recent weeks.  So many settings are still operating below their usual capacity. PACEY continues to make the case that early years and childcare services are not a ‘nice to have’ and should receive the same support as schools and businesses.

In May PACEY submitted joint letters along with the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and Early Education (EE) to Chancellor Rishi Sunak; and Vicky Ford, the Childcare and Early Years Minister in England, to again call for increased financial support. We raised these concerns again in a submission to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the COVID-19 response in England as well as a separate letter to the Treasury.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) highlighted registered childcare provision as one area of focus in an investigation into unfair treatment of consumers during the pandemic, due to reports of unfair practices relating to payments and cancellations in a minority of settings. PACEY urged the CMA to review the impact of this investigation on the sector, outlining the wider market issues including insurance cover and consistent and historic underfunding. We were pleased that this resulted in the CMA deciding not to take enforcement action. Instead they wrote an open letter to the childcare sector which gave supportive guidance on how they ensure their contracts meet consumer law (for example in handling refunds during closures).

Second wave of Covid-19 arrives in Autumn

In September, England and Wales began to experience a second wave of coronavirus cases bringing along delays in accessing tests and more uncertainty for providers as they experienced further temporary closures. However, we were pleased that thanks to our lobbying we persuaded government to allow childcare and early years settings to continue to operate during the most recent national lockdown. It is now accepted that schools and childcare should remain open wherever possible and closure is a last resort because of the impact this has on children’s education and wellbeing.

PACEY was devastated by the allocation of just £44 million to early years entitlement funding in England in the Chancellor’s 2020 Spending Review in November, which will not cover usual inflationary costs let alone the additional costs that childcare providers are facing this year due to the pandemic.  Childcare and early years providers in England also missed out on the Covid Workforce Fund for schools and colleges. We continue to push the Department for Education to develop a long term plan and funding for the sector and to move away from the current piecemeal approach it is taking.

Promising news as we move into winter

As the year comes to a close, the early years sector has had some welcome news to celebrate.

Thanks to a government grant, PACEY was able to work with other partners throughout the year to deliver a wide range of much appreciated advice and support to childminders, pre-schools and nurseries in England and Wales, all focussed on helping them recover from the pandemic. Partnerships with Relate, I CAN, NDNA and the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University have provided new advice resources as well as live events and other support activity covering everything from business sustainability to helping to ensure that children remain active during lockdown.

The end of November brought exciting news when thousands of PACEY members were invited to attend HRH Duchess of Cambridge’s launch event of the landmark Royal Foundation Early Years Survey. This survey was launched at the start of 2020 and received half a million responses, making it the biggest survey of its kind. PACEY is grateful to HRH Duchess of Cambridge for her dedication to the early years and for starting a national conversation around the importance of early childhood. We will continue to work with the Royal Foundation to help shape its early years plan and hopefully influence a lasting, positive change.

We were pleased to see our sector recognised in a parliamentary debate dedicated to discussing the Future of Early Years at Westminster Hall. Members spoke passionately and powerfully about the issues in their local constituencies and how we can work together to create a long-term solution to ensure the sustainability of early years and childcare services.

The Department for Education confirmed that early years courses in England will be available free of charge as part of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. We hope this will go some way in addressing recruitment challenges in the workforce, however we continue to call for the wider sector challenges to be addressed.  In Wales funded support for childcare qualifications remains.

Outside of government, having suspended inspections in England back in March due to the pandemic, Ofsted outlined plans for a return to phased inspections for the spring  term of 2021, with full graded inspections resuming in summer. PACEY is now  developing advice and support for members due an inspection from January. In Wales CIW have been successful in implementing virtual inspections where possible and we continue to work with them on the return to physical inspections.

Currently, PACEY celebrates the news of the first Covid-19 vaccine being rolled out in the UK. We wrote to the Departments for Education and Health and Social Care to reinforce that registered providers should be considered ‘priority workers’ in order to get the vaccine as soon as it is available.

Looking forward into 2021

We know that coronavirus outbreak is going to have a deep and long-lasting impact right across the childcare and education sector. PACEY will continue to build alliances with parliamentarians and other stakeholders to call for increased investment in early years and childcare.

The immediate crisis that Covid-19 brought has exposed the challenges that were already facing providers, and presents an opportunity for government action to make lasting change to early years education and childcare. Urgent and focussed Government funding will be essential to support families and ensure that all children, particularly the most disadvantaged are supported during this government’s next four years. With Senedd elections taking place in May 2021 this will also be a time for PACEY Cymru to lobby on key issues affecting the sector and to call on the government to continue the investment in childcare and early years in Wales.

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