Children’s Commissioner calls on Government to overhaul early years system

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, is calling on the Government to take action as the need for an overhaul of the early years system in England is crucial.

The report, ‘Best Beginnings’, is an in-depth examination of early years provision in England looks at the provision of early years services for children across the country. Possibly not unexpected that the report describes a difficult system that is disjointed and fails to support many children in disadvantaged areas.

It also comes with a stark warning that there are now many nurseries at risk of closure, with a large number of them in deprived areas.

The children’s commissioner stated that far too many disadvantaged children are further falling behind and is calling for a new ‘Best Beginnings’ early years investment plan, ranging from Children and Family hubs to midwives and health visitors.

These new investments will help tackle problems at the beginning of a child’s life rather than waiting until crises develop in later years. While the sector has always pulled together to support children, the children’s commissioner urges the Government to take a much more active approach to getting the relevant services out to the children that need it most.

Recommendations in the Best Beginnings report include:

  • The Children’s Commissioner makes a number of recommendations including:
    • An emergency recovery package for the childcare providers whose finances have been worst affected by Covid-19. Government should also reconsider the design of Universal Credit which makes it hard for lower earning families to get help with childcare, as parents have to pay costs upfront and then wait to be repaid.
    • An expanded offer of 30 hours free childcare and early education for all children aged two, three and four, and 15 free hours for all one-year-olds, so that early years education is seen as part of ordinary life, in the same way that school is.
    • A cross-government ‘Best Beginnings’ strategy led by a Cabinet Minister for the Early Years. This would set out how a revitalised and extended Healthy Child Programme, the Early Years Foundation Stage, Children and Family Hubs, antenatal services and the Troubled Families Programme would work together.
    • A Family Guarantee of support for under-fives and their families delivered by health visitors, early help and Troubled Families workers, family nurses or family support workers based in Family Hubs.
    • A national infrastructure of Children and Family Hubs. These would be a centre point of support for children and families and act as a gateway to multiple services. Each hub would be a base for universal services so that every child is reached.
    • A Government review of early education and childcare funding to ensure it is working as effectively as possible to help children and families who need it most.
    • A single system for supporting families with early years education and childcare, with fees charged in relation to families’ incomes as they are in Sweden and Norway.
    • A national workforce strategy for the early years, focusing on staffing across existing health, local government and early years settings.
    • Better sharing of data between different services, so children who need help do not fall through the gaps or go unidentified. This should include more effective use of a child’s NHS number and Unique Pupil Number so it is possible to match children in different databases.

Commenting, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said:

‘The Children’s Commissioner is absolutely right to call for a wholesale review of the government’s approach to the early years.

‘For years, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have faced a fight for survival as a result of wholly inadequate funding levels. With the coronavirus pandemic placing even more pressure on provider finances, the fact is that many settings simply won’t survive if the government doesn’t take urgent action.

‘As such, we are pleased to see that the Commissioner has echoed our call for an emergency recovery package for the sector, as well as a wider review of early years funding rates. Both measures will be vital if childcare providers are to be able to continue delivering quality, affordable care and education now and in the long term.

‘That said, we would urge caution on any recommendation to extend existing ‘free childcare’ schemes any further before any such review has taken place. While positive in theory for families, unless the current issues around underfunding are fully addressed first, such a move would only place more pressure on an already-struggling sector, and ultimately result in even more providers being forced to close their doors for good.’

In an open letter, June O’Sullivan, chief exec of London Early Years Foundation stated:

‘As the CEO of 39 charitable social enterprise nurseries in London, I welcome the news that the children’s commissioner for England has called for a complete (and long overdue) overhaul of Early Years services, plus a government-funded rescue package to prevent mass closures of nurseries and childcare providers that could go under as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

‘Whilst many nurseries have done an amazing job during this pandemic by providing a 4th-emergency service to both the children of key workers and the most vulnerable, we rely on occupancy to survive. Sadly, this is currently at low levels due to coronavirus – making it very difficult for nursery providers to stay afloat.

‘This is confirmed by a recent national survey which suggests as many as one in four nurseries and pre-schools could close within the year, rising to one in three in the deprived areas where children benefit most from early intervention.

‘I couldn’t be clearer when I say that the Early Years sector is crying out for help and recognition from the Government in this time of crisis. Nurseries are a vital infrastructure to the economy by allowing parents to go to work whilst helping people out of poverty. If the Prime Minister is committed to getting Britain up and running, then this must start with our nurseries.’

 

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