New research exposes the unhelpful rules and regulations in ECE, and further grows parents’ appreciation of its impact on children’s opportunities and development.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend (in person) the launch of new research: Implications of COVID for Early Childhood Education and Care in England, a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, that was carried out by the Centre for Evidence and Implementation, the University of East London, Frontier Economics, Coram Family and Childcare and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 

It revealed “considerably more” children from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds have missed out on formal early learning during this time.  It also found the number of children attending ECEC in the autumn 2021 had dropped to 90% of expected levels based on pre-pandemic patterns.

Having dedicated all my time to thinking about, developing solutions, and supporting local authorities and early years and childcare providers – socially during the past two years, I was eager to take this amazing opportunity to reflect upon what has happened, think about the current temperature, identify the risks and impacts, and consider what needs to be done next.

Much of what was found will be familiar territory to providers, LA early years teams, and anyone in a position like mine.  Many of the risks we had feared have been manifested.  That said, there are some surprises and even reasons to be cheerful.  The bounce-back-ability of children, families, employment, practitioners and providers, and local authorities has been impressive overall.  Helped by an enormous human capacity to change, professional commitment to doing what is needed and what is best, and the things that central and local government was able to do to support.  Let’s pause to recognise and celebrate that. 

With any positives, there are also flipsides, and many negatives do exist – of course they do.  The provider base has remained relatively static.  Trends seen before the pandemic have persisted.  Regrettably, the numbers of childminders have continued to decrease.  More and more group settings have been acquired to become new links in ever-expanding chains.  

We have been building up to this point for some time.  And this extraordinary pandemic-fuelled episode has shone an even brighter light on what is wrong with all things early years.  Top of the list is the unhelpfully complex and unequitable structures and processes we experience in the sector.  That really must change.  But it can only change through root-and-branch review – not by chipping away at this massive marble monolith with a toy chisel.   

Naturally, children’s desire and ability to attend provision was dramatically compromised. Provision was closed or prioritised for keyworkers, constrained by guidance that did not always feel connected, consistent, or fair across all provision in the private, voluntary, independent sector and schools.  Employment was clearly a major stimulus in families’ engagement and re-engagement with society at large and using ECE in particular.  The more vulnerable or disadvantaged a family was or felt, the greater the likelihood they maintained a distance from ECE through the various lockdowns and the periods before and after.  This lower use by disadvantaged children has found to widen inequalities, and the risk of them being maintained or even exacerbated.  Low use is a matter that demands careful scrutiny.  Children may be coming back (90% by autumn 2021) but it is the type, frequency, and duration of use that is critically important.  And the characteristics and demographics of who is attending.  Inequalities were exposed by the research.  Notably of the likelihood of settings prioritising the placement of children who either needed longer hours or had greater capacity to pay fees.  PVI providers are more than aware of the effects and impacts on families’ capacity and demand in relation to the reduced payment of fees.  It is a vital business issue, and it removes their opportunity to change the lives of all children and families for the better.

As if it wasn’t difficult enough, families have felt an enormous strain on homelife and their parenting role in the pandemic.  This has been found to have increased their recognition of the support and benefits they enjoy from ECE.  Without it, many have noticed how their children’s development has been slowed in the areas of socialisation, speech, language and communication, physical development, and self-regulation.  All a result of spending less time with others, fewer stretch-engagements with early years professionals, reduced time outdoors, and engaging in more sedentary activities etc.  There is a developing sense of the right to access, and the critical importance of, the ECE entitlements.  And in parallel parents’ have are building a deeper awareness of the artificial inconsistencies and rules and regulations surrounding its supply, including the already controversial issue of free v. funded v. charged for ECE.  They will, I imagine, continue to challenge these and demand the change we all need.

Local authority early years teams’ support for parents (FIS and brokerage), and providers (business, funding, training) pivoted and was found to have helped.  Well done them.  The critical presenting provider issues were reduced income, increased demand on existing roles and functions (safeguarding, welfare, food, home learning), rising staffing costs and hours, workforce availability, and the risk of reduced Ofsted inspection outcomes. 

Where it has been most effective for providers, it has strengthened relationships and trust between the LA and the local sector.  This was a welcome development for me, having observed an erosion of this relationship in recent years and the LA role has become smaller and more constrained by multiple factors (financial, political, legal).  There was inevitable inconsistency, what some LA areas could easily achieve was an unsurmountable challenge for others.  Unfortunately, providers in some areas were highly critical of what was considered to be a lack of effective support.  We did whatever we could at Hempsall’s to bring LAs together online to freely share our analysis and models of delivery, and for the facilitation of peer support and idea and resource sharing.  We all did what we could. 

What would the clever next steps be I wonder?  There are three:

  • New strategy and inputs: Naturally, the report asks for more funding.  Let’s rephrase that so it lands better with those that hold the purse-strings:  We need a clearer, simpler model for all ECE, and one that strips out the unhelpful inequity in supply and demand.  We also need to streamline the labyrinth of process that seeks to protect the public purse, but instead deters equal access to a service that can only have best outcomes for children and families.  That can save money, it can redistribute it by spending it in better ways, we will need more funds as well – but we will deliver more for it. 
  • Wider vision and outcomes: I agree that ECE needs to be attached to all of its outcomes, not unnaturally and politically-lazily adhered to one over all the others.  This is a cross government, multiple-outcome strategy for learning and achievement, health, safeguarding and child protection, social care, family/parenting support, tackling cycles of disadvantage, and economic and employment opportunities for children, young people, the workforce and parents.  Some may say ‘levelling up’ in short. 
  • Local leadership and partnership: When it comes to the LA role.  Much (not all) already exists, especially in legal statutory duties.  What is missing is the enablers for them to make this happen.  The resource, funding, and remit that combines to form the energy for achieving results.  There is a need for more in all parts here, including new approaches to working with a sector that has matured considerably over the past 20 years. 

Read the report here: Concern for the inequality gap has increased as children from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds missed out on “considerably more” early years educat | Family and Childcare Trust

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