Priority To Early Years Learning


Nursery workers, childminders and nannies have been working hard throughout the pandemic. This work is, in part, what has allowed key workers to keep working. This has been crucial not only for parents and their employers, but also for the children themselves, especially those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged and those with special educational needs.

The government’s COVID recovery plan for schools in England includes £153 million for professional development for early-years practitioners. This is good news for a workforce that is chronically underpaid and undervalued. But the question is, will it be enough?
These early-years professionals have been forced to respond rapidly to uncertainty and change, which has only been exacerbated by ambiguous and inadequate official guidelines. The government was slower, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing to people working in private nurseries than in other parts of the education sector.

When schools closed to all but keyworkers’ children and vulnerable pupils, nursery workers continued to work. And they were not prioritised for the vaccine despite their daily risk of exposure to the virus.

COVID-related disruption and nursery closures affected the development and behaviour of young children. And research shows that quality education and care is central to addressing this.

Observers fear the £153 million lump sum is only a fraction of what is needed to enable staff to address the widening attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children. They also question whether it will ensure a healthy recovery for the early-years sector more broadly.

Professional development alone is not enough. Nursery workers are often paid little more than the minimum wage. Without improved salaries, this recovery package will only reinforce their perception that their skills and knowledge are not valued.
Studies suggests that early-years education is “foundational” – an essential structure that underpins the economy and society. Our ongoing research into the impact of COVID on the sector lends weight to studies which indicate that the past year has placed significant financial strain on providers.

Meanwhile a survey conducted by the Early Years Alliance in May 2020, also found that one in four nurseries feared they would not reopen. While our research doesn’t indicate closures on this scale have or are taking place right now, the changes providers are making to adapt are likely to place greater strains on the workforce and threaten to undermine the quality of the education and care they provide.

Revenues plummeted when fewer children attended nursery due to the pandemic. The department of education’s subsequent decision to continue to provide funding at pre-pandemic levels did prevent many from falling into deficit. However, this measure was reversed in January 2021 and funding was altered to reflect actual attendance.

This is likely to have affected those nurseries where attendance was lowest, which, our research suggests, will be those in areas of greatest deprivation. This will exacerbate the negative impact of the pandemic on the poorest families.

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