[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:30 pm, 12th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on early years settings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by saying a huge thank you, if I may, to the early years leaders, the staff and the childminders up and down the country who have kept rising to all the challenges thrown at them during the pandemic over the last year, and kept putting the needs of our children first. They are often unsung heroes, putting their lives at risk many times to educate and care for our children, and I am delighted to be able to have this debate today to right the wrongs for those who have felt forgotten.

Far too often during the pandemic, the early years sector has felt like an afterthought, yet all the evidence shows that pre-school education is absolutely vital to a child achieving their potential. Going into school already months behind is too often a guide to underachievement later. Early years settings are essential and provide long-term benefits for the economy and society. They help to close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, and remove barriers to employment, particularly for women, who are still disproportionately responsible for unpaid care. I hope that this debate will be an opportunity to correct the lack of support for early years settings throughout the pandemic, to look their representatives in the face, and to address and gain parity for early years with other education sectors.

Two local nursery headteachers got in touch with me this morning. I thank the Minister for meeting some of my local nursery headteachers during last year’s lockdown, because it is important to talk to headteachers. One of them said to me: “We are proud to be open, but we need support and clearly thought-out guidance focused on the early years. We are looking after their children, but who is looking after the staff?” Another said: “We really feel like a forgotten sector, and if primary schools in the UK and nurseries in Scotland are only open for key workers, why not nursery settings in England and Wales?”

Many questions are being asked today, and they are hoping for answers. I pay tribute to the Early Years Alliance, to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, and the National Education Union for championing the sector. This is needed now, more than ever.

Early years leaders in my constituency have two major concerns that I will focus on today: safety and funding. First, there is a huge concern from early years staff about the safety of being open at the moment. Will the Government publish the evidence base for nurseries being open, and will they commit to reviewing the transmission rates regularly and revise this decision, if necessary?

Early years staff feel that they are putting their lives in danger by coming into school, and that they are putting their mental and physical health at risk. There is no social distancing in nurseries, and nor should there be. One local headteacher said to me: “I have been an early years professional for over 30 years, but today is the first time I go to work fearing for the safety of my staff, myself and that of my family.” Another constituent said to me: “I feel strongly that nurseries should only be providing childcare to children whose parents cannot work from home, or for key workers’ children and vulnerable children, for as long as schools stay closed.” That is a question being asked by parents and by staff across the country.

Last week, the Prime Minister conceded that, especially regarding the new variant of covid, schools are vectors for transmission. I have asked about early years settings in the briefings we have had with health experts and Ministers, and I understand that the data show that transmission rates reduce in line with age. However, with transmission rates so high at the moment—one in 20 people have covid in some parts of London—the transmission rates will still be high in nurseries.

Early years staff simply do not understand why it is so important that primary schools, right down to reception, have had to close because of community transmission, but not early years. The Secretary of State said in one briefing last week that nurseries open because they are businesses. Is that the real reason? We really need to know. Staff are worried and parents are confused, and this undermines public confidence in decisions and public health messaging. The Government need to provide answers.

That is safety, and now for finances: the UK’s childcare sector has been crushed financially by covid-19. There was already a £660 million shortfall in early years funding before the pandemic, and that has been worsened by the inadequate and patchy Government support throughout lockdown closures. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that childcare settings received £4 in income for every £5 spent during the last lockdown. They are running at a significant loss. The financial issues faced by early years settings will result in closures, and they are a real risk to the diversity of early years settings, which we all value: parents value it, and children see the benefit of it across the country. Will that diversity still be there at the end of the pandemic?

Headteachers have said to me that this is currently about the survival of the fittest—those with the most accommodating landlord, those with councils paying the free entitlement funding, and any number of other factors—instead of survival based on the needs of and the best places for our children. The decision to allocate funding from this month onwards on the basis of current occupancy levels rather than pre-covid occupancy levels is incredibly misguided, and will spell financial ruin for thousands of nurseries. Costs such as rent, insurance and salaries are fixed for many nurseries, yet attendance is down because of illness, concerns about going in, being told to stay at home, lower enrolment for this year, and parents having reduced incomes themselves. The only financial support was the furlough payments received by many nurseries. I am sure that support will be lauded by the Minister later, but those furlough payments did not cover nurseries’ running costs, which stayed fixed.

I return to the issue of free entitlement funding from councils, which must be addressed. Councils receive the free entitlement funding from Government, but only some of them pass it on to the nurseries. Some do so on the basis of the number of children currently present. Schools, however, get funded on the basis not of the numbers present, but of the numbers enrolled at the school. That should be the same for nurseries. Many nurseries were not eligible for a small business grant, as most do not pay business rates. Maintained nurseries do pay business rates but were not allowed to apply for the business rates holiday. There were lots of anomalies in nursery funding, and there is still time to fix them.

Another nursery head pointed out to me this week that no financial support has been offered when settings have had to close for up to 10 days because of a positive test, and there was no financial support for cover staff. That is the one thing that could break them financially, as one teacher who contacted me pointed out. Maintained nurseries should be able to access the schools covid catch-up fund, but they are not able to do so, even though catch-up will be crucial to the life chances of those in early years. Will that be addressed? There are only 389 maintained nursery schools left in the UK, and only one in my constituency, Eastwood Day Nursery, which is outstanding and an essential part of local education provision.

Maintained nurseries were in major financial crisis before covid, and they now have increased costs for personal protective equipment and staffing, for which they have been unable to claim. They pay business rates, as I have said, but were not allowed to claim for the business rates holiday, and it has now emerged that they cannot claim from the covid catch-up fund. The headteacher at Eastwood Day Nursery said: “The quality of what we can offer in real jeopardy if our funding is reduced. We are fearful that the much-needed service we provide to the children of a very deprived community is at great risk if we do not have the secure funding to continue our work. Nurseries will simply not be able to continue at the current rates. Closures of early years settings across the country will deepen both financial and educational inequalities, while slowing the recovery from the pandemic.

I have several urgent questions for the Minister and would be grateful if she could answer them in her response. My first question is on safety: will the Department for Education publish the evidence base for the decision to keep nurseries open? Will that be reviewed regularly and will consideration be given to closing nurseries during this lockdown, for the safety of staff and to stop the spread of the virus in our community? Any closures must come with support for families, including a legal right to flexible furlough for childcare reasons, and not a cut in universal credit. Will the Government provide funding for PPE for early years settings? Will the Minister ensure that early years settings have priority for lateral flow testing, ideally delivered to the early years settings and then picked up, and that all early years staff and childminders are prioritised to receive the vaccine as soon as possible?

Will serious consideration be given to prioritising education funding for early years settings? Issues that need to be addressed include their ability to claim for PPE expenditure and the covid catch-up fund, and the fact that they are penalised for pupils’ absence and do not receive free entitlement funding. Much more clarity of funding is needed, as different councils make different decisions—it is a postcode lottery. Will the Minister confirm whether nurseries will receive funding to cover support when teachers have to self-isolate, or will the whole nursery have to close? Will the business rates holiday be applied to maintained nursery schools? Will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Treasury to bring forward a new package of financial support for private and maintained early years settings, to look at provision across the country and make sure that the sector is secure enough to be able to build back?

I conclude with a quote from the headteacher of a nursery in my constituency in Putney: “But who are we, the forgotten educators who ensure that people can continue to work knowing their precious children will be cared for and educated safely? We are in trouble. We need your help. We have been given no support for PPE or to implement extra hygienic measures. Our staff are putting themselves at risk every day, and we do it willingly. We do it because we are early years professionals and we care. But please, we need help. If early years settings go bankrupt because of lack of Government support, who will look after our children—your children —in the future?”

My message to the Minister is simple: the early years sector desperately needs her help. I urge her to listen and to act.