[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 3:04 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson for securing today’s important debate.

The strong messages that have been given under lockdown, telling everyone to stay at home and to keep school-aged children at home where possible, are in contrast with the messages that the early years sector should remain open, and have caused confusion and concern. Families and early years workers deserve to know the scientific basis for the decision to keep nurseries open when primary schools are moving to remote learning, and they need a clear, evidence-based explanation of why this is. Early years practitioners urgently need to be reassured that their safety is being prioritised, by making regular mass testing available to them, and by Ministers’ making the case to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that early years practitioners should be prioritised for vaccination.

This policy, like many of the policies thought up throughout this pandemic, has not considered the practicalities on the ground. For example, in my constituency of Jarrow, parents are now taking their primary school-aged children when collecting their children from nursery. That makes social distancing difficult, as it naturally leads to problems with children mixing in car parks and playgrounds outside. On the flipside of that, one mother in my constituency was so confused by the messaging from the Government around home schooling that she left a young child in front of an online lesson while she picked up her other child from the nursery school; although I cannot support that decision, of course, I understand her reasons and the difficulties that she faced.

Then, of course, there are general practicalities for early years workers in their day-to-day roles. By its very nature, early years education involves much more close contact than other kinds of education, as other hon. Members have said. Nappy changing, helping to take coats on and off, and mealtimes are all examples of where close contact is unavoidable.

The “protect early years” campaign, run by the three largest industry bodies, has called on the Government to provide scientific evidence for the decision to keep early years settings open. They have also called for early years staff to be prioritised for vaccinations. Trade unions such as Unison and GMB have further called for the closure of early years settings to all but key workers and vulnerable children during the current lockdown. I personally support those calls, and I hope the Minister will acknowledge these concerns and take them on board.

At the same time, like other hon. Members, I am concerned about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the already fragmented, privatised and underfunded landscape of early years education and care. The sector needs targeted financial support for nurseries, childminders and other early years providers, which have been hit badly by a decade of underfunding and now face substantially reduced income and higher costs during the covid-19 crisis, with months of uncertainty ahead. Early years providers were struggling before the crisis, with thousands closing every year, but this crisis poses a further threat to those that have managed to survive. A loss of parents’ fees during lockdown and continuing low demand for childcare due to covid-19 have left half of providers fearing closure before the summer.

Any Government change to providers’ funding from this month would push 20,000 providers to the brink of collapse. The Government’s decision to fund all local authority nurseries based on their one-day snapshot January 2021 census for the spring term means that early years providers with children who are off for covid-related reasons cannot access that funding. Even if all children on roll were fully funded, in most cases that would reflect a fall compared with those providers’ usual numbers, as many eligible January starters’ parents will have held back on taking up a place. That is putting pressure on already overstretched budgets.

Without urgent confirmation that there will be full funding of early-entitlement places, early years providers will not be able to remain open for all children. Just this morning, I heard from the headteacher of Boldon Nursery School in my constituency that it is set to lose £24,000 through the funding formula. There are four nurseries in my constituency, all outstanding: one of them, Boldon nursery, has not only provided an emergency childcare service during this pandemic, but has acted as an emergency service delivering food parcels to families in need, as well as its general role of acting as an extended family in many cases. I pay tribute to that nursery and all nurseries and childcare providers. Now they face being punished by potentially losing their jobs at the end of it.

Despite the crucial role the sector plays in caring for children outside of school hours, it has been completely neglected by the Government. The Government must urgently rethink the funding charges that will force many nurseries to close their doors, and give the sector the support it deserves.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge how this unfairness is causing a huge amount of stress for early years leaders and workers. It is time that the Government recognised the importance of childcare and early years education for our economic recovery, and brought forward a review to ensure the safety of the workers and prevent the sector from financial collapse.