New figures showing a net loss of more than 315 early years providers in England in February and March arrive hard on the heels of a survey that found just one in four maintained (state-funded) nurseries will be able to remain open with current levels of funding. To many parents, and early years workers, the crisis in the sector is no surprise. Nurseries were suffering before the pandemic due to cuts. No wonder Covid-19 is killing off a growing number of them.
Last month, Labour launched a “big conversation” about the future of education for under-fives. The sad truth is that ever since its flagship Sure Start project began to be rolled back by David Cameron, the tentative advance towards parity with other areas of public provision that began in the 2000s has either stalled or reversed. The Tory promise that three- and four-year-old children of working parents would be entitled to 30 hours of “free” nursery education disappeared in a haze of smoke and mirrors (and chunky top-up charges). An indication of the sector’s failure to prosper, as educational and feminist progressives once hoped, is contained in the statistic that pay fell by 5% in real terms between 2013 and 2018.
High-quality nursery education, including that offered by childminders, ought to be understood as a social good, similar to primary schools. Children benefit from getting used to being and playing together, in a setting other than their home, before they start formal schooling; and parents often need childcare to enable them to work. But unlike in countries including Denmark and Sweden, where nurseries are heavily subsidised, in the UK the system is a confusing mixture of means-tested, part-funded and privately paid-for, with providers a mixture of state, private and half-and-half (the number of maintained nursery schools in England stands at just 389, although thousands of primary schools also have nursery classes).
Needless to say, it is children and women who suffer most from missing provision, especially those from poorer backgrounds. Children from low-income families and those who are vulnerable for other reasons (disability, addiction) benefit particularly from early years education. As with school, gaps and absences over the past year will have a disproportionate effect on them both directly and indirectly – for example, if parents have been unable to work and household income has fallen as a result. Since 95% of the early years workforce is female, and 90% of single parents are mothers, the overall impact is strongly gendered – although this does not mean that fathers (and, of course, boys) are unharmed.
Had the government paid more attention to gender in its Covid response, early years would have been a higher priority. As it stands, ministers are playing catch-up. Nurseries are vital pieces of community infrastructure with a value that is both social and economic. Failing to offer them the same financial support as schools was a mistake that must be put right. The early years are not the be-all and end-all. But a huge weight of evidence supports the idea that a strong start makes a big difference.