[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 12th January 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South 2:56 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my colleague from the Education Committee, Fleur Anderson, for bringing forward this important and timely debate.

I, too, declare an interest: I am the father of a toddler in an early years setting. Like many parents, in the first lockdown I truly came to understand the difficulty of home-based learning and working at home. I was simultaneously trying to sit on Select Committees and take part in debates with a two-year-old wanting to climb into my lap and wave at everyone. Granted, when that happened in a meeting with No. 10, it was very pleasing to see the Prime Minister wave back. However, it causes difficulties. When the router is unplugged in the middle of a Select Committee and we have no idea what is happening, by the time we dial back in the meeting is already over.

There are difficulties, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for every parent who went through them last year. It was a difficult time but we got through it. Now we have different difficulties. We are highlighting the difficulties of a sector of the education system that has got forgotten, but it has taken this pandemic to truly see the importance of early years. We need to do that now, because the teachers and childminders, our maintained nurseries, our private settings, do a job that many people do not understand, cannot comprehend and cannot do themselves, no matter how much they wish to. Despite all my love for trying, play-based learning does not come easily to me, although I must admit that I am quite enjoying reading “The Runaway Pea” and “Superworm” almost nightly.

One positive of the pandemic is that it has re-highlighted the importance of the early years sector, and we cannot let that be forgotten. Unfortunately, far too many negatives have come out of this pandemic. To echo the hon. Member for Putney, early years intervention, which we have discussed many times in the Select Committee, really needs to come to the fore. We rightly have great intensive intervention for key stage 4 and GCSEs, but if we brought that intervention forward into primary, and ideally into early years, it would not need to be as intensive.

We have already discussed safety, and I echo the calls for the scientific guidance from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to be brought forward to all Members of the House. Certainly, when the chief medical officer and the scientific adviser for the Department are before the Education Committee in a couple of weeks’ time, we will be calling for that so that, as an absolute minimum, we can pass on that guidance to our key workers so that they know they are safe, or are aware of the mitigating factors that they need in order to become safe.

I echo the call for key workers to be prioritised for vaccination. They are working throughout this pandemic, even against the background of the great concerns over the new variant. But for what? If we are not taking them seriously, what message do we give them? That they are important but not important enough to vaccinate? That is not a message I feel comfortable giving.

The greatest concern, however, is that of funding. While I acknowledge the per hour rate increase, it is not nearly enough. Private providers are hit with the double whammy of financial pressures and decreased income due to children not coming in because their parents are furloughed and not working, have been made redundant or are isolating. They also face a fourfold increase in both cleaning and PPE costs. If they were a school setting they would receive assistance with those costs. However, because they are private providers, they receive no help. But there are solutions. If we look to extend the VAT holiday on PPE to private providers in nursery settings, that would go some way towards easing this financial pressure. Extending financial assistance and cleaning costs would give closer parity with other education settings.

I have heard stories of several owners of private nurseries who themselves have to do the cleaning, so they are still in the nursery at 8 o’clock at night, cleaning, to make sure that is safe for the morning, when they go back in at 8 o’clock to do a further clean to make sure it is truly safe for the children. There are so few examples of where PPE can really be worn in a nursery setting. That inevitably comes at feeding time or changing time, but these are children who learn through play-based learning. They learn through touch, hugging and kissing. It is very warming to my heart when I pick my daughter up on a Thursday if I am lucky, but if the first thing she does is pull my face mask down to give me a kiss and then pull it back up—granted, usually to cover my eyes—the sentiment that I feel is not one that a child can understand. We need to be doing everything we can to ensure that those workers are safe.

Without that help, the long-term and short-term viability of private providers comes into question. As the hon. Member for Putney has said, if these private providers do go under and fail, who is there to pick up the slack? The state and the public sector are not in a position to do so. There is not the capacity in maintained nurseries to pick up anywhere near the slack that would be needed.

We have touched on the vaccine and testing. Both need greater prevalence in our nurseries and for child- minders.

One of the biggest concerns is the findings in the letter from the Competition and Markets Authority, which has basically said that if early years settings are not providing facilities for the children, they cannot charge. It is one thing being forced to close, but when children cannot come in because they are isolating or because their parents cannot afford it, there is no recompense for those providers, who are really, really suffering. Many nurseries are worrying about making it through the month, let alone to half term.

While we sing the importance of early years, we cannot allow it to remain the forgotten education sector. We have seen an increase to primary and secondary per pupil funding, and I welcome that. We have seen an increase in funding for further education and vocational education, and I welcome that too. But for far too long we have missed out on a meaningful increase for the per hour rate for early years. It is about time that we do assess that.

As my hon. Friend Steve Brine has said, it is time for a meaningful funding review. We have kicked the can down the road for far too many years, avoiding the difficult questions as to what is needed for a truly world-class early years setting. Unfortunately, we have now run out of road and we need to make that decision now. If I could pass one plea to the Minister, it would be this: bring forward that review, start it while we are in the pandemic, so we can look at really levelling up and building an early years setting that is truly world-class, so that our children can make the most out of the opportunities they will have in a post-pandemic world. Please bring forward that review, make it meaningful and give our children the best opportunity we can.