Nursery closures will hurt disadvantaged children the most — targeted funding and a long-term Early Years strategy are needed now

In June, the government rolled out £1 billion catch-up programme for children and young people who have missed out on schooling during the Covid-19 lockdown. This financial package was broadly welcomed by educators and researchers, particularly the £350 million National Tutoring Programme aimed at providing targeted help to those that need it the most.

As part of this funding, the Department for Education this week announced an initiative directed at Reception-age children in schools to raise outcomes in speaking and language skills. The policy correctly identifies children’s language as a risk area and the roll-out of an evidence-based intervention (Nuffield Early Language Intervention) to more children is welcome. But the funding is only available to children attending early education in school settings and there was no new funding pledged to the struggling private and voluntary nursery sector. This is despite the fact that the majority of childcare places are in private, voluntary and independent nurseries (PVIs) and a much smaller share (approximately 20%) are in school-based settings.

As we have discussed in a previous blog, these PVI nurseries are facing significant financial trouble following the Covid-19 lockdown when children stayed at home and parents stopped paying nursery fees. Many parents have continued to keep their children at home over the summer. According to research conducted by the Sutton Trust, in March 68% of parents of 2–4 year olds reported accessing early education and childcare; during lockdown only 7% did. By June (when older children started returning to primary schools), 83% of parents said their children had not returned to formal provision, many citing health worries.

Perhaps the most troubling finding from this research was that a third of settings in the most deprived areas in England said that they were unlikely to still be operating next year. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most to gain from access to early education and they stand to lose the most from nursery closures. There is robust UK and international evidence demonstrating that access to high-quality pre-school education has huge benefits for children’s social, cognitive and language development that have an enduring influence in a child’s life all through school, post-16 education and later employment. While these effects can be detected in all children, they tend to be more prominent for disadvantaged children who may not have a supportive home learning environment and who benefit from the structured learning they receive at nursery.

As with other elements of the Covid-19 crisis, nursery closures will not have an equal impact across society but rather they will exasperate existing social inequities. Even before the crisis, the most disadvantaged families were the least likely to take up the government’s Early Years funding entitlement, and in deprived areas only 57% of parents sent children to early education compared to affluent areas where 74% of parents did. Also, the disadvantage gap (the gap in educational attainment between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children) has remained persistently wide even before the lockdown. Education Policy Institute’s figures published today for 2019 show that in England, the average gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers was 4.6 months by age five.

We can reasonably estimate that the disadvantage gap in the Early Years has already widened as a consequence of the lockdown. EEF’s evidence review on this topic, for example, predicted that school closures will reverse the progress made to narrow the gap in the last decade — the early education stage will likely follow a similar pattern. Nursery closures in deprived areas will only widen the gap further, hurting the future educational attainment and life chances of disadvantaged children.

So while the funding announced this week for children in school-based settings is welcome, there is now an urgent need to re-focus the conversation on the crisis affecting the wider nursery sector, not just schools. The crisis is likely to spill over to public focus in the autumn: with the UK now formally in a recession and the Job Retention Scheme coming to a close, there will be a likely increase in redundancies and job losses over the coming months, and even fewer parents may choose to send their children to nursery. As demand reduces, more nurseries are likely to close and costs for those that remain open will increase — with knock-on impacts on parents hoping to return to the workforce who will find the competition for nursery places in the remaining settings to be high.

Targeted funding is needed to stop nurseries in deprived areas from closing in the short-term, and to ensure disadvantaged families still have access in the longer term — this will hopefully be announced in the next Spending Review. After that, the government should implement a comprehensive, evidence-based Early Years strategy to address the many unanswered questions brought fore by this crisis, such as:

  • What is the government’s long-term plan for the financial sustainability of providers? Many settings were already struggling with the rise in the minimum wage and in rental costs and what they see as inadequate government funding for nursery places.
  • How will it ensure the affordability of early education and childcare for working parents? At the same time as nurseries have struggled to stay in business, parents have faced nursery fee hikes against stagnating wages.
  • What is the plan for Early Years recruitment, workforce development and retention? Sutton Trust’s Early Years Workforce Review published yesterday finds that childcare workers are low-paid and the career path offers limited progression opportunities — consequently, turnover is high. The Covid-19 crisis is likely to deepen these challenges as staff will now be looking to get into more secure and better paid jobs.

Only when the government targets both the immediate crisis in the Early Years sector as well as sustainability planning for the long term, can disadvantaged families truly be supported to continue to work and have good quality education — not just childcare — for their children.

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The Institute for Employment Studies is a centre for research and evidence-based consultancy in employment and human resource policy and practice.

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Institute for Employment Studies

Institute for Employment Studies

The Institute for Employment Studies is a centre for research and evidence-based consultancy in employment and human resource policy and practice.

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