As schools prepare to return, so soon after the A-Level fiasco, there is a huge focus on education. However, one very important part of the education sector, which has been underappreciated for too long, is that of day nurseries, pre-schools and childminders.
These early learning providers cater for 2.1m children under the age of five years old and play a vital role in the development and future outcomes of our children. They also support the economy and enable parents to return to work. Going to an early years setting gives children a foundation for life and helps with their social, emotional, language and physical development.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of childcare settings — indeed, childcare professionals were even included in the list of key workers. Those children who have attended an early learning setting during coronavirus have benefited enormously, from the continuity of care and consistency of routine.
However, many young children have been unable to attend nursery for the last few months. Two thirds of providers were temporarily closed during lockdown. One third of nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas may be forced to close because of financial difficulties within a year.
If the right action is not taken now to support nurseries, Covid-19 will set back educational progress by decades and make the UK less productive, less stable and less fair for all.
One of the key challenges for nurseries is that the cost of wages, which are closely linked to the Living Wage, has increased by 30 per cent over a four year period. Meanwhile, Local Authority funding has barely changed. This signals to early years providers that to survive they either must increase fees or reduce their standards. At Storal Learning we are not prepared to compromise on the quality or our offering.
Few people in power seem to grasp the differences between early years providers and schools. We need the government to appreciate the huge economic and societal returns that are possible from modest investment in the early years. I believe that government funding rates for their flagship 15 Hours and 30 Hours programmes need to keep pace with statutory pay increases. I would also like to see England follow the example of Scotland where early years providers are exempt from business rates, in recognition of their benefit to society.
The sector can raise its own standards too. We need to invest better in staff and create environments where they can build careers and thrive. This will help to counter the high turnover of staff which has been a problem in childcare for too long.
We must provide a strong development programme for apprentices, on the job training, a clear career development path, and mental and emotional support. This is how we can attract and retain the best talent and has been a core pillar of our strategy at Storal Learning since our founding. Moreover, by choosing to centralise the increasingly complex administration, compliance and back office work, we enable our childcare professionals to focus on the children and staff development.
The ultimate aim for our industry has to be to provide children with a proper early education which sets them on a lifelong journey to learn, develop and reach their potential.
We are at a defining moment for the UK’s children and young people. The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on millions of young people, and on the productive capacity of UK PLC for decades to come.