Nurseries and Early Years Settings (Westminster Hall Debate), 03.12.20
Recently I joined other members of the APPG on Childcare and Early Settings in a debate in Westminster Hall. We, as a group, are keen to see the Government have an in-depth review of policy and funding in this sector.
The research clearly demonstrates that the money that we spend on a child during childhood gains the most value when it is spent in the early years, but that is not where most of that funding is distributed.
In order to bring about successful change we need to get three main areas right: the market and behaviours of providers, recognition of the diverse nature of the sector, and commitment to a long term plan for the early years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I reiterate the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on bringing this important topic to Westminster Hall this afternoon.
I declare an interest, as a father of two young children who were at nursery throughout the previous lockdown. I would like to pay a personal tribute, and one on behalf of many other mums and dads in my constituency, to the early years teams at Hillingdon and Harrow Councils, and particularly to Hillingdon, which not only kept my children’s nursery open but ensured that other mums and dads, whose children’s nurseries closed their doors during the lockdown, were able to access childcare as key workers during that period.
The research clearly demonstrates that the money that we spend on a child during childhood gains the most value when it is spent in the early years, but that is not where most of that funding is distributed. When we look at the way in which we fund different parts of a child’s journey through life, we see that most of the money goes into secondary education and relatively less is spent early on.
I would like to focus my brief contribution today on three aspects of this challenge that it is important to get right if we are to bring about sustained change. The first aspect is about looking at the market as it is. Many hon. Members have made the powerful point that without effective early years provision, our economy is held back. The Government should be proud of the work that has been done with tax-free childcare—an enormously successful policy, appreciated by many working parents—but also the funded hours. However, as we go into a debate that is very much focused on funding gaps in the early years, we also need sometimes to challenge the behaviour of some providers.
It has caused great concern in the sector in my constituency that some nursery providers made much of the fact that they were closing their doors, taking furlough money for the staff who were placed on furlough during that period, taking the full entitlement of payment from the local authority for the funded hours, telling parents that unless they paid the full fees, there would be no place for their child when the nursery eventually reopened, and quite proudly telling other nursery providers that that meant that when those providers went out of business, they would be able to take over their premises and behave in a predatory commercial way afterwards. Therefore, although much good work has been done in the sector, I think that we also need to be prepared sometimes to challenge the behaviour of some providers, whose actions have not reflected the wider move of trying to get behind communities, parents and key workers at this difficult time.
My second point, which builds on what my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, is about the complexity of the sector. For the early years we have children’s centres, which are not childcare venues but which are a provider of key services for that time of life. We have nurseries; we have nursery schools. We have, of course, childminders, who are a significant part of many children’s journey through the early years. All of them, in my view, need to be seen as part of that bigger picture of the support around a child and their family. We know that, when we look at attachment, when we look at intergenerational relationships, when we look at a child’s start in life, all those things need to be taken into account. Although it is right that we are hearing the voices of providers of settings such as nurseries, it is also important to recognise that childminders are a crucial part of the picture, and they too need the skills, the ability and the capacity to support children and be part of the market response.
The final point, and the most important one, is the need for our country to have a longer term plan for the early years. A lot of the political debate has been focused on funding. Those with long memories will recall the neighbourhood nurseries initiative, which was started in 2004 and axed in 2007, to much national angst. There has been a pattern of frequent changes in the Government’s response.
We can see the numbers of children coming through the system. We know when there is a baby boom that we need to plan ahead, and we know that when the demographics go the other way we may need to reduce capacity in the system. A number of hon. Members have mentioned the need for effective workforce planning. I invite Ministers, building on work that I know is already done, to set out what that long-term plan is beginning to look like, so the children of this country, particularly in the early years, have some certainty over the medium to long term.