Early Years Educators — [James Gray in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:21 am on 25th January 2022.

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[James Gray in the Chair]

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 2:30 pm, 25th January 2022

Before we start this afternoon’s proceedings, I remind Members that Mr Speaker enjoins us to wear our masks when we are not speaking, to maintain social distancing and to do all of those things that I know Members want to do anyhow.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the role of early years educators.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. Looking around me, I also see many friends and supporters of our early years sector. I thank them for taking time out of their schedules to come to debate this issue; I know that there are a lot of important competing issues in Parliament today.

I start with two declarations of interest. First, I am married to a hard-working early years educator, who will be arriving home very shortly to pick up the school run and then juggle all the different things that working mums do while working dads are in Parliament—or vice versa. Secondly, for the last couple of years it has been my pleasure to chair the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education; we held our annual general meeting in the last hour, actually. I want to extend my thanks to parliamentary colleagues who have supported our work over the last year and have committed to do so for the year ahead. I was somehow re-elected chairman of the group for the next year. I also thank many colleagues old and new who have agreed to serve as officers for the coming year: we have much to do.

This afternoon’s debate is timely. It rather wonderfully coincides with the all-party group’s annual childcare and early education week, which celebrates and promotes the hard work of our early years educators and sector. Our theme for this year is celebrating the role of the early years workforce as educators, which is what I wanted to place at the heart of my chairmanship of the group, and seeking to explore the challenges that the workforce faces and celebrate the good work that it does.

Last week, the all-party group held a forum for parents to share their experiences of early years educators and settings. It was chaired by the brilliant Professor Kathy Sylva of Oxford University. Professor Sylva is at this very moment providing an update to the meeting of our all-party group, which is being chaired in my absence by the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley. The session is being recorded, and I urge any colleagues who would like to catch up on it to follow our social media channels. Parents provided some incredible examples. I see this as an example of the very best work that we can do in Westminster, and I am sure that Professor Sylva will not mind me touching on some of the things that were said. One parent spoke about the empathy, patience and humour an early years educator shows when working with both her and her child, who has significant special educational needs. Another reminded us of the little freedoms that early years settings empower families to have. One lady said she occasionally has lunch with her partner; that may sound frivolous, but one the best things that we can do for our children is provide them with a loving, secure home environment—and making sure that mum and dad stay mum and dad is rather important, too. One phrase that touched me was from a parent discussing the key worker in their child’s early years setting, who said:

“Simply, we would be lost without these people. They are truly amazing.”

Of course, there are areas for development in the early years workforce as we strive for its continued betterment. At our forum, parents raised the issues of settings’ opening hours and, overwhelmingly, the need to ensure that early years educators are properly paid, a subject to which I will return.

I commend the Government for acting on this issue in the spending review. Following a meeting that my hon. Friend James Daly and I had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), he placed early years at the centre of some of his announcements in this area in the Budget. He quadrupled the funding for early years settings over the next three years. That was most welcome, and an important step towards shoring up a sector that has been heavily hit, it is fair to say, during the pandemic.

However, as I have said before, this is not just about money. The early years sector faces an existential crisis as settings are being forced to close, and the valued early years educators that we are talking about are then lost to other lines of work, often due to remuneration. Most worryingly of all, bright young prospects are put off a career as an early years educator. At a meeting of our all-party group in December, two apprentices spoke compellingly about their work with children under five. However, those brilliant talents were pursuing careers in social care and not in early years. Social care is an important vocation, but they are a great loss to the potential early years workforce of tomorrow, and we need them. So more must be done to draw the early years educators of tomorrow towards the profession, and not push them away.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

I will give way to my predecessor as chair of the all-party group.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I know the hon. Member is a doughty champion for the early years sector. I have heard him mention his wife on several occasions and admire the work that she does. In an ideal world I would stay and make a speech in this debate, but I have to leave because I have moved to the shadow Treasury team and I have a commitment.

I wanted to come and pay tribute to the early years educators, and I am pleased the hon. Member still uses the term “educators”, because they are educators. They are not just key workers. They are the unsung heroes of our nation who make a massive difference to our children’s life chances. I do not think he mentioned how much they are paid, but on average, as he knows, it is only £7.42 an hour, which is dismal compared with how much it costs to live.

I wonder whether the hon. Member will comment on the fact that we need a cultural change in how we value and talk about early years practitioners and educators. Instead of just referring to the early years sector as childcare, we should also refer to early years educators and talk about early education. I could go on about this for ever.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

It is funny how often, in my almost 12 years in this House, people say, “That is amazing; I was just about to come on to that in my speech”, and funnily enough, I was. The hon. Lady led on this subject when she led the all-party group, and she is absolutely right. Far too often we have seen early years practitioners presented as well-meaning amateurs who are good at changing and plasticine. They are good at those, but they are also educators, so she is absolutely right. Following on from what she said, I think a major contributing factor to the fact that we are losing people from the profession and not attracting them into it is that early years educators have been subject to so many misconceptions about their role that it has affected how their profession is viewed and then how it can attract people.

First and most commonly is the notion that early years educators somehow do not hold the same status as those who work in the subsequent parts of the education profession. That could not be further from the truth. The first few years of early education is the foundation on which lifelong learning, health and wellbeing are built. Handling this phase of a child’s life requires specialist knowledge and specialist approaches from trained, qualified practitioners. Early years educators are highly trained professionals and they hold specialist qualifications accordingly. Despite that, many settings are struggling to pay competitive salaries, and providers have therefore reported that staff are increasingly moving into sectors such as retail.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I apologise because I cannot stay for the full debate, either. On the point about pay, is it not linked to the fact that so many providers simply cannot cover the cost of their staff and their settings with the amount that they get from the Government for the so-called free hours of childcare—the 15 hours that is universal for three and four-year-olds and the 15 hours additional? We could have a whole debate on whether somebody like me should be entitled to those hours, which is a separate point, but I speak from experience as the mother of a three-year-old who gets only 27 hours of childcare a week, yet I still pay half of what I paid before he turned three. The providers simply cannot make ends meet, and that is why they cannot pay the staff properly and cannot train them well enough.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

The hon. Lady is right. The early years settings that we hear from in the group report that funding for the hours offered under the flagship 30-hours entitlement, which of course I support, has not kept pace with the rise in minimum wage and all the other costs, so the gap between the cost of providing each hour versus what comes in has narrowed and narrowed, and the lines have crossed. That is why we are seeing a squeeze and settings closing. I thank her for that point.

Competitive pay is the least that any qualified professional should expect. I hope the funding announcement in the spending review, as I mentioned, will help to address that. However, the pandemic has added stress for everyone. It has added to the stress of skilled staff, including with the increased risk of exposure to infection that our early years professionals face. A loss of skilled staff means that the early years sector cannot deliver high-quality early education, which will especially affect the most deprived areas and the most disadvantaged children. I want to stress that point to the Minister; I know that he is acutely aware of it, and I hope he can address it in his closing remarks.

The early years workforce needs a step change in wages. The Government have gone far, but they need to go further. The Minister has my full support to take up our cause inside Government; we will back him all the way. Being a former junior Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, I know that Under-Secretaries of State do not always have the swing vote on decisions in Her Majesty’s Treasury, which is why the Minister will need all the ballast we can provide. I think that I speak for all of us present in saying that we are there to provide it.

Urgency in addressing this area is underlined by my next point. Most early years places are delivered through private, voluntary or independent childcare settings. Maintained nurseries, such as Lanterns Nursery School in my constituency, play a vital role as well, but PVI providers deliver more than 80% of childcare places. PVI providers have a consistently good reputation across the board; like their maintained counterparts, PVI settings are overseen by Ofsted, which is good. In 2020, Ofsted ranked 96% of PVI providers as good or outstanding—up from 72% in 2012.

Most PVI providers—about 57%—have only one site. Only 9% of PVI providers are what we would call a chain, with 20 or more sites. Most of those settings are hard-working small businesses that employ people exclusively from the local community. They invest any surplus they have into upgrading the nursery environment and, crucially, developing their most important asset—their staff. We are not talking about people lining their pockets with those ever-dwindling surpluses. They are simply seeking to make a fair living while pursuing the brilliant vocation of shaping young lives, which brings me to my next point.

Earlier, hon. Members heard the story of how one parent and their child benefited from the support and inspiration offered by their early years educator, which is a tale that is replicated time and again across the country; I suspect other hon. Members will refer to it. Early years educators provide support, advice and guidance to parents, caregivers and families, including on nutrition, play, schooling and health. They are educators in the widest possible sense of the word. They often form great teams with parents and provide families with valuable insights into their child’s development. We know children form multiple attachments at an early stage, and one of those can be with those working with them in a nursery setting.

Crucially, as policymakers, we all understand the importance of early intervention in making a difference to life chances. For every £1 invested in early education, about £7 would be required to have the same impact in adolescence. Every £1 spent in early years saves about £13 in later interventions.

One parent and NHS worker captured it best when they said that, while

“nurses, doctors and other healthcare staff got most of the accolades,” and rightly so, early years settings and their workers

“selflessly continued to open to look after keyworker children such as ours, even though it potentially put them at risk so we could continue to work.”

At the end of last year, there were press reports of adjusting staffing ratios in early years settings as part of an aim to lower the cost for parents, which I would gently caution the Minister against. Safe, secure and necessary monitoring in early years settings requires a higher staffing ratio than in schools. Leading voices from across the early years sector, including the Early Years Alliance and the National Day Nurseries Association, have warned against it.

I believe that early years professionals deserve pension contributions and pay increases that can keep in line with increases in the cost of living—a very hot political subject at the moment—which must be delivered through more investment and better recognition of the work of the early years workforce. We are in a position where the Government require early years settings to be open in order to deliver the 30-hour funding entitlement, but, as I have said, there is a shortfall in funding, and that situation can only go on for so long. The result of that shortfall is that many early years settings run at a loss and even face closure, especially those in disadvantaged areas. As a Conservative, I of course want small businesses—I mentioned how many of these early years providers are small businesses—to thrive: indeed, I believe that all Members in the House, from all parties, would want that. As a parent, I want all children to have access to the very best early education, wherever they live.

In the case of PVI early years settings, those two things are not mutually exclusive. Those who pursue a career in early years education do so because, above all else, they believe passionately in making a difference in children’s lives, and that is because early years education is vital in tackling inequalities. We know that the first five years of a child’s life are the most formative. However, when providers in the most deprived areas report themselves as being twice as likely to close as those in more affluent areas, we must acknowledge that something is going seriously wrong in the sector.

The Early Years Alliance has said that poorer families are more likely to lose access to early years settings because of what I have described as a market failure. I am sure that colleagues will speak about other experiences from their own area, but it is important to set the context. If we are to deliver on our promises and level up all parts of the country that have been left behind, the early years workforce is a vital tool in that project.

So what can we do? We can begin squaring the circle here today by supporting the APPG and our call for the early years workforce to take their rightful place as educators. I encourage colleagues to take advantage of the relaxation of covid restrictions to meet local early education providers in their area; I am sure that everybody who is participating in this debate already does so. We can all show our support for the work of those providers by thanking them during this debate.

However, it is to the Minister I look. I have sat in his seat many times. He is most welcome to his post, which I know he is still relatively new in, and I hope that he can find time to come and speak to us on the APPG in short time. We know that there is a lot in his in-tray, but we also know that he is a parent and no doubt a lot of what I have said today will resonate with him.

Before coming to my conclusion, I just need to qualify one point that I made earlier when I said that this issue is not all about money. I meant that, but so many of the challenges facing early years educators can be addressed by more targeted investment. We must address the workforce challenge that our early years sector faces. In my opinion, that can only be done by paying our early years educators the same amount as those working with the reception year group. The present system is inequitable and unfair. That change would be transformative for our valued early years workers. It is the cornerstone of what the Government can do to deliver for our early years professionals and the families they support.

Extra cash will be meaningless, however, unless it is accompanied by the wider transformation that I have spoken about, regarding how we view the early years workforce. It is a problem best encapsulated by the fact that they are highly skilled but low-paid professionals. We trust them with our most precious resource—our children—in the very early years of their lives, when so much attachment is formed. It is only right that we view them for what they are, which is educators.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:48 pm, 25th January 2022

Thank you, Mr Chairman, for calling me to speak.

It is, as always, a pleasure to speak in a Westminster Hall debate, but it is also a pleasure to follow Steve Brine. I will put on the record, as others have, my thanks to him for all he does in relation to early years education. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind—I suspect that there is no doubt in the minds of any of us here today—that he has a deep passion and interest in this subject matter. That was illustrated in his speech today. He often raises crucial issues that impact our early years educators and I value—to be fair, I think we all value—his continued efforts in that regard.

I appreciate that, as the Minister will know, the early years system in England is different to that in Northern Ireland. Regardless, it is great to be here in Westminster Hall and to hear the view of others, and perhaps I can compare some of the things that happen here with what happens back home.

Particularly during the pandemic, our early years educators have had to deal with an unprecedented number of stresses, staffing being one of them; the hon. Gentleman referred to that in his contribution, as others did in their interventions on him. In a survey conducted by the Early Years Alliance in the autumn of 2021, 84% of respondents said that they were finding it difficult to recruit suitable new staff. No big surprise there, really; it is the same in Northern Ireland. Early Years has stated that

“Before Covid-19, Northern Ireland’s childcare sector worked hard but was under-resourced. Now it faces huge challenges, and shortages could hamstring our economic and social recovery from coronavirus.”

Thankfully, there is some hope and we in Northern Ireland have taken some action, including financially. The Health and Education Ministers have issued a £12 million support package for childcare providers. The two Ministers responsible in Northern Ireland have recognised the issue and responded in a constructive and physical way, to ensure that finances are there.

There were long-term issues prior to the pandemic, including the retention of staff, especially those who are highly qualified. Tulip Siddiq referred to the wage structure, as did the hon. Member for Winchester. There is a need to have a wage structure in place, so that people involved in early years education can feel they are being reimbursed accordingly for all their hard efforts.

There are also ongoing issues relating to provision for special educational needs. SEN children rely heavily on routine and consistency; without it they risk a major hindrance in their development. I have regular contact on that in my constituency; I am sure others have the same. The role of early years is crucial for young children’s development. Positive benefits are dependent on several factors, including the quality of care, the nature of activities, relationships that children develop in their settings, group size, child-to-teacher ratios, staff retention, and teachers’ training and professional development. All those things collectively are critically important.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is concerning that a report by the Education Policy Institute found that more than 40% of staff working in early years settings did not have access to training for speech and language? That is a growing area of concern, particularly as a result of the pandemic, and exacerbates the attainment gap for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am sure the Minister will say that the Government are putting money into early years training but, when that is worked out, it is about £460 per head of those working in the sector, and it will not cover the amount of need if we want to professionalise the workforce.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister heard that request from the hon. Lady. I know the Minister is very interested in the subject and, when it comes to answering the requests from the hon. Lady, others and myself, he will be able to say what the Government are doing, with time to put that in place.

Most early years settings are private, run through unions and independent organisations. It is essential that they are given sustainable funding to carry out their role to the best of their ability. I am sure the Minister has engaged, as he always does, with his counterparts in the devolved nations, to ensure that the correct funding is going to the correct sectors of early years. When the Minister has responded in previous debates, I have always been very impressed by his interaction with the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Minister has been very up to speed on the matter. I am sure when he replies he will be able to confirm again that that is the case. I thank him in advance for his answer, ever conscious that it will be positive.

In relation to back home specifically, there are 1,200 local early care and education providers, 30,000 parents and a workforce of more than 10,000. The past year has demonstrated how essential high-quality education and childcare provision is for families and children in Northern Ireland, and that has been echoed in this debate today. Addressing childcare must be a key priority. If parents cannot access the childcare they need in order to work, we will not be able to rebuild fully our economy. The Minister responsible for that task is not here, but the work of Government to address and rejuvenate the economy is self-evident in the unemployment rates and job opportunities that we have heard about in the past few days. There is some good stuff being done there.

All discussion in relation to childcare and education starts with early years, and the importance of early learning for young children. Childcare settings have closed due to the pandemic and other factors, which may be purely financial, but Ofsted data show that there has been an ongoing decline in the number of childcare settings since 2015, due to the lack of childminders. From August 2015 to 2021, the decline levelled at 17%.

I will conclude with this comment, because I know a number of others wish to speak, and the Minister will be keen to have time to respond. I also look forward to the contribution from the shadow Minister, Helen Hayes. I would like to thank each and every early years employer who goes above and beyond to help the development of our young people. I have met some of them, and I am greatly impressed by them and their vocational commitment to their jobs. Their role in society is admirable, but they undoubtedly face struggles, especially with staffing, with closures and sometimes with their wage structure, so we must do more. As I have said, I hope that further discussions between the Minister and his counterparts across the UK will enable us to exchange ideas and thoughts on how we can do better. We can all learn; we can learn from the Minister and, I hope, the Minister can learn from us.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 2:55 pm, 25th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend Steve Brine on securing the debate during Childcare and Early Education Week. Like him, I pass on my thanks to all nursery and early years workers, who have done such a fantastic job over the last two difficult years, particularly those working in Cornwall.

A child’s early education is key to their future success, so it is essential that every child has the best start in life, which means giving them the best possible support between the ages of nought and five. That is a critical stage in someone’s life, and it is essential that the early years programme is properly effective. That is why the issues in the sector need to be urgently addressed. Statistics show that 28% of four and five-year-olds finish their reception year at school without the early communication, language and literacy skills that they need to thrive.

Early years educators are crucial. It is harder to produce a curriculum in which children learn and get to the stage that they need for reception year while they think they are only playing—that takes quite a skillset. The quality of teaching is just as important to outcomes in the early years as it is in other stages of education. Quality is key for pre-schools to have the biggest impact on children’s life chances. In my opinion, early years educators should enjoy the same status as those in other teaching roles: they should be included in the same teacher training schemes and have the same bursaries and salaries as in primary teaching.

I come at the subject as someone who took full advantage of the Government’s 30 hours scheme. In 2015, when my daughter was nine months old, I had to go back to work part-time. I got to work for my hon. Friend Scott Mann, who is a very flexible employer, but not everyone is as lucky as me. Having said that, even though I was working part-time, I had help from grandparents until my daughter was old enough for me to take advantage of the Government’s scheme. I was very grateful for all that help.

Now that I have become an MP, I find myself on the other side of the fence, hearing from early years providers how difficult it is to work in that sector. There are problems in recruitment and retention. Nurseries in my constituency are struggling to retain well-qualified staff, while recent research found that many early years practitioners have left for better-paid jobs. In Cornwall, people probably earn more in hospitality than in an early years setting.

Many people in the sector are pushed out of the job that they love because of a combination of low pay, low status and increasing workload. Some workers in the profession said that the challenges of supporting their own families on the salary of a childcare worker were too great and that staying in the sector was no longer a career option.

Furthermore, the early years sector is reliant on a largely female workforce. At a time when families are generally reliant on two incomes, with greater pressure on single parents always to be in work, I am sorry to say that working in the early years sector is increasingly unviable. There is evidence of increasing paperwork and demands from parents and employers, so it is of little surprise that the workforce is such an unstable one.

Compared with some Scandinavian countries, where jobs working with babies are highly sought after and most staff are graduates with higher degrees in child psychology, qualification levels for nursery workers in the UK remain low, and access to ongoing training is very limited. Investment in training is important because replacing staff is costly in both money and time. In an industry where word of mouth matters, good staff are key to occupancy. Providers should explain to staff why training is good for them, but when will they find the time to do it?

Pay is also important. It may not necessarily be possible for employers to pay for all study time, but if people are forced to work outside work hours, they will be overworked and burnt out, and they may choose to take their expertise elsewhere. That is not good when teaching children.

With my other hat on as a member of the APPG on baby loss, one of the things I am campaigning for is continuity of care for pregnant women, which I feel should go on into the early years sector. It is important to have a stable workforce while the children are developing attachments, knowing that they are going to see the same person every time they go to that setting.

As mentioned previously, staff feel a lack of status in their roles. Pay is very difficult in the sector, but being open about it offers the opportunity to explain why things are the way they are. Providers need to show staff that they are in line with market rates and what staff can do to get increased wages; clear structures and career paths give early educators better prospects and make the sector more attractive to school leavers. I look forward to hearing from the Minster how the Government seek to address this.

More positively, I should add that I sit on the Early Years Taskforce with my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom. I have had feedback from Cornwall Council and met with providers and the children and families sector in the council. We were both pleased to hear that Cornwall is already doing a lot for what we want to achieve in the sector.

I would particularly like to pay tribute to Meredith Teasdale and the excellent Together for Families team at Cornwall Council. Cornwall Council has a strong partnership with two things of particular note. It gave welcome support and advice to its early years providers during the lockdown, which was pleasing to hear, and the support has also seen an increase in the take-up of early years education places for Cornwall’s two-year-olds.

Cornwall has also maintained a network of family hubs in difficult times, which supports multidisciplinary working to support families, introducing the Best Start for Life apprentices, who provide direct support to families that need it for the first 1,001 days of a child’s life. Those are both excellent examples of where we can continue to innovate in this important area. With that in mind, I am hopeful of and want to put out another call for any pilot schemes or funding schemes that are going to be running in the early years sectors; Cornwall, with its clean boundaries and co-operative team of MPs, councillors and brilliant council officers, will always put itself forward for them.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 3:02 pm, 25th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I would like to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Steve Brine for securing today’s debate.

We know from all the research that attention from adults is a crucial factor in the earliest part of a child’s life. That fact has a long history in public policy, dating in the modern era back to the Plowden Report of 1967 and reflected in decisions taken by Governments ever since, in respect of both primary education and the provision of initiatives such as the neighbourhood nurseries, children’s centres, early years centres, and now family hubs.

It seems to be a point that underpins the issue highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester in respect of ratios: the need to ensure that we have sufficient adults in any particular setting to have an effective relationship and to give sufficient attention to the children. However, it is also incredibly important as we consider the future role and shape of our early years education. As has been highlighted today, we see a mixed economy of provision in which there are examples of outstandingly good practice that make a fundamental, evidence-based difference to the lives of children.

The nursery schools we see around the country and the excellent childminders, many of whom I see in my own constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, are part of a bigger picture, where research done in the world of academia drawing on the experience of other countries—the United States, for example—in developing new initiatives designed specifically to tackle disadvantage and drive social mobility has been applied here, in the UK. I would like to focus my contribution primarily on the considerations that that brings forward for public policy as we begin to shape it for the coming years.

When we consider the shape of the system we have today, we see that our earliest educators are operating in a system of funding that is very much dominated by the needs and demands of our big secondary schools. It is a common piece of feedback from early years practitioners and those who own early years businesses—those who lead in this area—that the allocation of resources to early year settings in any given area tends to be an afterthought. It comes after the distribution of funding: first, to secondary schools; secondly, to primary schools; thirdly, to further education settings; and, finally, early years settings are thought of just before the tea break. We need to change that. Research that has come from the What Works Network, funded by the Department for Education and done over many years, shows that the funding that we allocate to the early years of a child’s life has the biggest impact on social mobility and in challenging disadvantage. It is very telling that Leon Feinstein, formerly head of evidence at the Early Intervention Foundation, where I served as a trustee, now with the Children’s Commissioner, has highlighted that the indicators from the early years foundation stage outcomes for children are extremely good predictors of how a child will do in their A-levels. We can tell pretty accurately from how a child is developing academically in their nursery school how they will do in their A-levels as they leave school at 18. We know there is very good evidence of the difference that it makes when we get this right.

In the past we have seen the Government beginning to look at not just the professionalisation of early years educators but the greater professionalisation of the workforce as a whole, for example, with the Children’s Workforce Development Council. A number of Members have referred to early years education becoming more of a graduate profession. We have seen, in respect of the teaching profession, consistency brought in to ensure that teachers are educated to master’s degree level, as a minimum. That is all part of an agenda that is about raising the attainment level of the people who are undertaking this crucial work. Clearly, the cross-party points that have been made about funding and what that means for rates of pay are also significant.

It seems to me that, as we survey the scene within the context of Government levelling-up policy, investment in doing the right things in the early years educator workforce is something that will pay dividends. It is unlikely, perhaps, to pay dividends in the short term—in two or three years—but we can see the contribution that this will make, especially to economic opportunity, in parts of our country that currently fall behind.

We have an opportunity to build on some real strengths within this overall workforce. One of the striking things is that in most parts of the country there is a significant local authority-run early years service. I am aware that in the London borough of Hillingdon, which covers about two thirds of my constituency, it is conspicuous that staff who work in that environment tend to be people who have 30 or 40 years’ experience and the highest levels of training and development. We need to make sure that, where we have access to that kind of resource, the benefits are spread so that those smaller, private voluntary providers—new entrants to the market—can learn from people who have been providing child care to a very high standard for 30 or 40 years. These are the people who have seen different trends come in and out and who know how to support parents who may be struggling with the challenges of bringing up extremely young children. It is an opportunity to connect what happens in the early years education workforce with our family hubs, our children’s centres, our nursery schools and into primary education and childminding. It would mean the skills and insights that we see in some settings are able to be shared effectively.

It is worth recognising that as we face this future we know—there is a cross-party acknowledgment—that this is not just about freeing parents to be more economically active. We have gone through periods in the past when the primary purpose of Government intervention in this area was intended, in particular, to make it possible for mums to return to work or to increase their working hours. That is important; we know that the mother’s level of both education and income is very important to a child’s life chances—to a greater degree than is the case with fathers. We also know that all this research demonstrates that the quality of early education really can drive a child’s opportunity later on.

As we see more Government interventions, such as the growth of tax-free childcare—something that I personally benefit from, having two young children—there is a need to ensure that ratios continue to support a high-quality offer. There is also a need to ensure that childcare is not something that arises as a consideration in a parent’s life only once the child is born and they need to think about going back to work. As my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory said, it should instead be something that is considered during antenatal care. That way, parents will know what to expect and how to make sure they are getting the right support for their child. All those things are incredibly important.

If I may offer a final suggestion to the Minister as a way of beginning to join some of these ideas up, we know that all local authorities have a sufficiency duty around childcare, which was introduced by the last Labour Government. That duty is often misunderstood. It is not about ensuring a sufficient supply; it is about having a plan to reflect the needs of the local population. How that happens varies quite a lot around the country, according to local demographics and local resources. However, there is an opportunity to use that sufficiency duty as a vehicle to bring together so many of these issues that affect not just the workforce but the future of children. We should consider how it can become more of a driver to share good practice and ways of addressing some of the financial challenges that individual settings of different kinds may face. It can be used to ensure that the research funded by the Department for Education and the research taking place in universities is brought together in a way that supports the agenda that we all share.

I hope that my contribution has been useful, and in particular that it has highlighted my experience in a local authority. I will finish by welcoming the continued focus that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester brings to this issue. Often, the Government are rightly accused of thinking only about things that will make a difference in the next two or three years, but if we get early years right, it will make a difference to the lives of children and to their future as adults for decades ahead.

Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South 3:11 pm, 25th January 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Steve Brine for securing this important debate. Sensible contributions have already been made about the need for investment in the early years workforce, the development and retention of staff, and the impact of early years education, especially for the most disadvantaged children in our constituencies—an issue in which I have held a long-term interest since my local government days and via my mother, Mrs Sandra Lewer, who was a nursery nurse and infant teacher.

The many challenges facing early learning providers have been exacerbated by the pandemic but also, importantly, by changes in funding from central Government and local authorities and the impact that they could have on post-covid recovery. That is what I will focus my contribution on.

Last week, I met Lyndsey Barnett, the CEO of Camrose early years centre, which is based in one of the most deprived areas in my constituency of Northampton South. The centre is a maintained nursery school and day care provider. It offers a fantastic quality of service from 8 am to 6 pm, including during school holidays. That is hugely important, because it means that working parents can drop their children off before work and collect them after the working day. Camrose is a benchmark for the excellent service that can be provided across my constituency and beyond to families from low-income areas who want to do all they can to work, and it is therefore crucial to the economy’s post-covid recovery. With the proposed restructuring of funding from the local authority as a result of central Government funding changes, the centre may have to cut back the services it offers.

That centre already faces many challenges in looking after vulnerable children, but it goes well beyond the remit of just a day care provider, not only supporting and educating young children—I reflect on the comments with which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester set the scene for the debate—but offering support to their families. It is that complete child approach, acknowledging the crucial nature of the first 1,001 days—a frequent and key concern of my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom—that makes recent Government announcements about family hubs so welcome. As a county council leader from 2009 to 2013, I must say that this renewed focus seems very like the children’s centre network that I promoted at that time, although I understand that Ministers will wish to stress that this time, it is different.

As Confucius said:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest;
second, by imitation, which is easiest;
and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield 3:14 pm, 25th January 2022

I apologise, Mr Gray, for appearing a couple of minutes late; I sprinted across the courtyard to try to get here to speak in this important debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Steve Brine for bringing it forward.

Early years education is vital to the development of our children—our future adults—and to our levelling-up agenda. Education and early years are key when we talk about what that means, what we are going to do, and how we tie together a coherent package around the phrase “levelling up”. Education is absolutely at the heart of that.

Just a week or so ago, I was lucky enough to visit Kangaroo Teacher Led Childcare in my constituency, where I met Alison, the owner and manager of the centre. She was adamant—my hon. Friend made this argument too—about the importance of the education element of early years settings. They do not just provide childcare—particularly not her setting, as she is a qualified teacher and a former deputy head of a primary school.

Alison explained how important her setting and others are to everything we understand about development in those preschool years—everything from nutrition to brain development, and the social, language and communication skills that are important. Even in that setting, I could see the difference between those children who had had many hours of early years education throughout their childhood and those who had not been socialising in the same way in their early years. The difference in speech and communication between those children was profound. We know that there is a huge correlation between children’s communication skills, in particular—their ability to express themselves and how they feel about things—and negative outcomes such as being expelled, being unemployed or even going to prison in later life, so this is hugely important from that perspective.

As someone who believes in small government and low taxes, I have always felt that if there is one area of life or society that the Government absolutely should invest and intervene in, it is education, because that is what sets people up to be independent adults who can make their own decisions in later life, and who hopefully will not need the Government to intervene.

From that perspective, I welcomed the Chancellor’s Budget last year, which put more money into the sector, with funding for workforce development in particular. We have already touched on how important that is for the sector. All of us in the room, who run what are effectively very small businesses, will recognise the challenge of having a very shallow structure where the most junior person in the office might only be one or two layers below us. There are very few places for people to go in that hierarchy, and often, after not many years, it is difficult to continue to progress and develop people, so they leave. We often find that in early years settings.

To retain staff, we need to help them and continue to develop and train them throughout their careers; those careers will be short if we do not do that. I would love to see a joined-up workforce strategy across early years, as was mentioned earlier, but also into other education and care pathways, such as primary schools and children’s services. People could then start—yes, perhaps on low wages—in an early years setting, but clearly see and understand the many varied, positive routes to all sorts of different careers. I think we need to do the same for social care and health; if people starting as care workers could see the massive range of opportunities that exist within the NHS, that would change our ability to recruit and retain people in social care. That is hugely important.

There was also £500 million in the Budget for family hubs and the Start4Life advice service. All that will be beneficial to our wider set of children’s services, and to those interventions in support of the most disadvantaged children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester used the phrase “market failure” to describe early years. I hear that phrase a lot around children’s services and early years settings. I think it has also been used by Josh MacAlister when talking about the wider children’s services sector—about foster care and looked-after children. All these areas are hugely important to our ability to support the most disadvantaged kids and to churn out—for want of a better phrase—adults who can live productive and happy lives. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister feels strongly about this, too. There is so much to grasp, and trying to fix the market failure will be a huge challenge, but it is such an important challenge for him to focus on.

I will make two practical suggestions before concluding. They are only simple, and they are perhaps not the answer to all these problems, which will take much wider and more challenging work. First, a couple of Members have already touched on the fact that they access free childcare. I access free childcare—30 hours—for both my children. I waited with bated breath for the day when my bills would be halved, when my elder son turned three, and we took advantage of that great benefit. We did not need it; I was on an MP’s wage and my wife worked part time. People on up to £100,000 a year can access that taxpayer-funded benefit. I am all for extending the benefits system—the universal credit system—into the workplace slightly if that helps to encourage people to be in work rather than getting trapped on benefits, but a hundred grand a year is kind of pushing it. I am not sure that that is entirely necessary. I think we could redistribute that money in a way that helps more of the most disadvantaged children, where we see a particularly acute issue. I think that more children accessing free childcare would get much more bang for the buck.

Secondly, one way to use that might be to offer the early years experience to more looked-after children. I raised this with the Minister informally last week. It is really important to recognise that not every child in the care system, even, is able to access early years education in the same way or in the same amount. A child in foster care does not have the same right to 30 hours as other children in the care system do. There is no reason why they should not, other than an arbitrary line that has been drawn in the sand. For those children who have either lost parents or been taken away from their parents and had very traumatic experiences in their early lives, consistency and support from an early years provider could be hugely beneficial. It could be life-changing for those children. There is no reason why a child should not be able to get that if they are living with their nan or auntie rather than in children’s residential care. We could make a very simple change there, and I think it would also help us to incentivise people to begin to be foster carers or to take on their nieces and nephews in those circumstances. I think that would happen if there were the offer of a bit of respite and some incentive for people to join and help in those services.

Those are some small examples of areas where I think we could make an early change that would benefit a lot of young people. As many Members have said, this is a hugely important sector, and the Minister has a huge task on his hands to try to fix just some of it, but I know that he feels very strongly about it, as we all do. There is a real opportunity, through the MacAlister review and these kinds of conversations about early years and additional changes in funding, to make a real difference to the most disadvantaged children. That needs to be at the heart of our levelling-up agenda, and I trust that it will be when we see the work from the Government on this over the next months and years.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 3:23 pm, 25th January 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Steve Brine for initiating this debate today. To be debating this issue in Childcare and Early Education Week is really important, but it is even more important that every single person in the House is constantly celebrating the role of early years providers and the workforce, and recognising them as educators. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we could not do without these people.

My husband and I work full time. We work incredibly long hours. It is definitely not a nine-to-five existence, and I need a real muddle of support to get me out of the house dressed, on time and able to string sentences together, which I probably will not be able to do brilliantly today. The childcare costs and pressures on families around the country are acute. I urge hon. Members to have a look at Instagram and to google the hashtags #parenting, #children and #childcare. Some of the statistics and information that come out are quite worrying. People are incredibly stretched.

I have said this before, but the juggle is real. It does not matter what someone does as a job or if they are not working at all; if mums and dads have little people running around with seemingly infinite energy each day, that means that every day is stretched even before they find out that their early years provider, nursery or childcare person cannot be helpful that day because they are stuck at home in isolation—they are perfectly well, but they have had a positive covid test—or that the nursery has had to close down because it just cannot make the numbers work on the business case. Military planning goes into all my friends’ days to get children to the right place at the right time. Families just cannot cope with these sudden shocks. It is for us in this place to try to find ways of smoothing out those shocks, or at least lessening their impact.

If anyone has the chance, I encourage them to listen the podcast “Parenting Hell” by the comedians and dads Josh Widdicombe—I can’t say his name; they get kids to try to say “Josh Widdicombe”, and they say it better than I can—and Rob Beckett. It is a brilliant look at an entertaining version of all the chaos that comes from real-life parenting. It is a nice bit of my week to know that I am part of a big club that is very dysfunctional.

We know that the transition to parenthood is one of the greatest pressures on a relationship or a marriage, so we have to do better at stopping these sudden shocks and problems. The system is quite literally causing family breakdowns, and we know the impact of family breakdowns on the country, on relationships, on families and on finances.

As we heard from a number of Members, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are incredibly committed to this issue. They have recognised the early years workforce and are very respectful of them. The new Secretary of State for Education, upon being appointed, included the word “families” in his strapline and mission statement, alongside “education” and “skills”. That shows a real commitment to the cause. All that has led to the Treasury quadrupling the money going into early years education, and millions of pounds to support family hubs, which will be transformational in our local areas where we can get them off the ground. The “Best Start for Life” programme is transformational and will provide a focus for families and our little people. However, we have to go further.

Let me make a couple of points that have already been touched on. In 2019, the staff turnover rate in the early years workforce—I am thinking only about nursery staff at the moment, excluding childminders—was 24%, compared with the UK average of 15% to 18% in other sectors. The cost of that turnover in 2019 alone was calculated as £879 million.

The Social Mobility Commission, in its report “The stability of the early years workforce in England”, found that the six most salient barriers to a stable early years workforce were low income; high workload and responsibilities; over-reliance on female practitioners; insufficient training and opportunities for progression; low status and reputation, and negative organisational culture. That is a pretty stark list. This is a workforce who feel they have low status, and they are the people we trust with our most precious charges—we send our little people into their care. They are people who are incredibly skilled and have solid qualifications—it is often a vocational passion to work in the profession—and they have reserves of patience that I certainly do not have when I am trying to feed my toddler vegetables, which she will not eat.

The other point is about the low public funding in comparison with other levels of education. The public subsidy for early years is about £3,000 per pupil, compared with £5,000 in primary, £6,600 in secondary and £6,500 for university students. That is incredibly frustrating given that it is now accepted that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most important. We have heard that early intervention can change not only the life of the child and their family early on, but the path of their life; it will probably change the type of state services that the child—and then the adult—uses. Why are we not investing more up front and upstream?

I want to thank the early years providers in Stroud and around the country. They are levelling up on a daily basis. They were levelling up even before it was a thing with a title. There is a small but perfectly formed gang of MPs and peers, and a very dedicated ministerial team, who really believe in the early years workforce and the value that they all bring to future generations. I am working with the think-tank Onward to investigate and research many of the childcare issues, including costs, that we have heard about today. I also sit on the Work and Pensions Committee. The Chair and the Committee have kindly agreed to investigate the childcare element of universal credit, with the cap and the up-front payments. We will be doing work on that this year, and I hope it will be helpful to the ministerial team who are thinking about this.

I am grateful for this debate. I am sure that all of us could talk about this subject all day long. I look forward to hearing the outcome and the views of the Minister.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North 3:30 pm, 25th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow all my hon. Friends. As one of the final speakers, I could simply say that I agree with everything that has been said and then sit down, but I will try a little harder than that. There have been excellent contributions, all of them articulate and passionate, because we all know the importance of the sector.

I should start by saying that I am the chair of—I have to check this because it has a long title—the APPG on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes, which essentially covers the grant-maintained sector. I am passionate about that, as was somebody else, and I wish he were here today. I spent many hours with the late and much-missed Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who was a passionate vice-chairman of the APPG for many years before I became chair. I will always be grateful for the insights that he gave me. We were both driven by the same thing.

When looking at this sector, we have to ask whether we just talk about money or whether we say, “Let us put a little bit here and a little bit there.” This debate is fundamental to why we are all MPs. If we are MPs or politicians because we want to get the fabled equality of opportunity for everyone, we must recognise that unless we get this right, there is no equality of opportunity. All the academic evidence in the world shows that the most important developmental stage for a child is, as has been stated, between zero and five. If they are behind academically and socially during that period, they do not catch up.

I am also chair of the APPG on youth employment. We do a lot of work on training and skills at age 16 and the choices that young people make at that stage. My hon. Friend Steve Brine talked about the impact of skilled workers. I talk repeatedly about how that decides—it cannot be any stronger than that—their ability to make the correct choice as to where they want to go with their career, what skills they want to have and where they want to be in their life.

I see that time is ticking on, Mr Gray, but I want to talk about my own experiences, if I may. I have been a governor at Hoyle Nursery School in Bury for the best part of 10 years. When I went there, we had a budget of about £500,000. There is a fundamental difficulty because the business model for the grant-maintained sector is very different from the business model in the private, voluntary and independent sectors. We certainly do not have time for a debate on how to equalise that, but it is an important factor.

We had no money. I remember that on the first day I went to the school, I looked around and I said, “Where is the investment? I know a lot of investment has gone into this school over the years. Under the Labour Government, lots of money was put into nursery schools.” The headteacher said to me, “Nothing has really changed. If you had been here five, six or seven years ago, you would probably have seen the same thing.” What we did do was put the money into training highly motivated staff to get the outcomes that were necessary for the young people who were there.

There were some challenges. We were a failing school when I first went there and we changed a few things. I became chair of governors, and in four years we got two outstanding Ofsted reports. In that school, 17 different languages are spoken.

One thing that has not been talked about today is the impact of intensive work at a nursery level on children with special educational needs. The SEN unit in the school that I am a governor of, and have been for a decade, literally changes lives. I want to pay tribute to the late, great Val Kay. Sadly, she passed away, but I worked with her for many years. Rachel O’Neil, who is the headteacher now, is driving forward a facility that does not differentiate between kids. It has an all-inclusive, progressive provision that gives SEN children the same ability to progress as it does children from any other background.

We have many children who have English as a second language and many children from dysfunctional families. The challenges are overcome. I do not have time to put into words the work, skill and love that are put into those children to ensure that when they leave that school, they have the best chance not only to progress emotionally, academically and socially, but to go on to the next stage of their education and take that further. I believe that in the sector I am talking about, the Government provided three years of supplementary funding, which was much to be welcomed.

I will make a few brief points to the Minister. He will know, because he is not only a good man but very much on top of his brief, that in the grant-maintained sector the costs of covid are mounting. There is also an argument for a consultation, or at least an interaction, regarding fair funding for the grant-maintained sector, so that funding is in the places where it is most needed, where this provision can make a difference. What does this sector do? It transforms lives, not just for the next five minutes, but throughout life. It improves relationships and gives people opportunity.

Returning to the start of my speech, when I went into that school, I looked at the young kids around that table and wondered what I wanted for them, if I were to be chair of governors. If I wanted them to have the chance to be astronauts, bus drivers, doctors or whatever they wanted to be, the only way to do that would be with investment and highly motivated, skilled educators who would put that provision in place.

As ever in this place, we talk a lot in general about putting in money, but unless there are bespoke leaders at a local level, it will not work. We are lucky in my area that we have fantastic teachers; I am sure that is so in Cornwall and everywhere else. This has been a brilliant debate and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. To call him a doughty campaigner does not do him justice. I was pleased to be under his wing at the meeting with the Chancellor. I know that the Minister will do what he can to ensure that this sector thrives and flourishes.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 3:37 pm, 25th January 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I congratulate Steve Brine on securing this important debate to mark Childcare and Early Education Week, and on his work with the APPG on childcare and early education to establish and promote this important week to acknowledge, celebrate and reflect on the vital role of the early years sector.

I pay tribute to everyone who works in early years education and childcare. There are few more important tasks than ensuring that every child has the best possible start in life. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who dedicates their working time to looking after and supporting very young children to grow, develop and thrive, whether as childminders or in nursery settings. It is a vocation to work with children. Across the country, as we speak, hundreds of thousands of early years professionals, the vast majority of them women, are nurturing and caring for children, and supporting them to develop and grow.

The theme for this year’s Childcare and Early Education Week is, “We are educators”. Under-fives learn in different ways from older children, but they are learning voraciously every single day. The best early years provision is underpinned by an understanding of child development and a richness of curriculum, every bit as complex as that found in our formal school system. Early years educators have the capacity to have a dramatic and lifelong impact on a child’s life, protecting against the effects of poverty and disadvantage, and reducing inequality. They can literally alter the foundations. “We are educators” is an important statement of fact, but it is also a challenge, particularly to the Government, to give early years professionals the status they deserve as a vital part of our education system that has parity with post-five provision.

I thank all hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. We are in danger of an outbreak of consensus on the importance of improvements in the status and pay of early years professionals, of staffing ratios and of good SEND provision and support for kinship carers. I would like to pay tribute in her absence to my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who was my predecessor in this role and who for six years tirelessly showed her dedication to the early years sector. I join James Daly in paying tribute to Jack Dromey, who was a dedicated champion of early years education and who I know is very much missed by Members from all parties in the House.

Today, we are celebrating the early years and childcare sector, but the speeches we have heard are in stark contrast to the woeful neglect of the sector that we have seen during the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic. Time after time, early years provision has been an afterthought for this Government, considered and treated differently from the rest of the education system, and too often early years providers are left to fend for themselves.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her powerful speech. Does she agree that the situation she just described is reflected in the Government’s decision to cut over 1,300 Sure Start centres in the last decade? In one year alone in Barnsley, nine were shut and we have a quarter of our kids growing up in poverty. Although family hubs are welcome, does she share my disappointment that we could have prevented there being a need for them by not shutting Sure Start centres in the first place?

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We had that infrastructure in Sure Start centres across the country, but 1,000 of them have closed, which is a shameful part of this Government’s record. Although it is welcome that they have recognised that terrible mistake with the introduction of family hubs, 150 family hubs across the country are no substitute for the 1,000 Sure Start centres that have closed their doors for good.

Early years settings have been open to all children since July 2020, without access to lateral flow tests or to additional funds for enhanced cleaning or personal protective equipment, despite the obvious inability of staff working with very small children to socially distance. Staff have been left vulnerable to infection and anxious about their own health and that of their families. I have been contacted by many providers in recent weeks who are struggling to stay open because of exceptionally high levels of sickness absence, as omicron has whipped through early years settings. With that coming on top of two years of stress and uncertainty, many who work in early years settings are exhausted and burnt out, and they are quite simply bewildered that the Government have not had their back.

Even before the pandemic, there were deep structural problems in the early years sector. The way in which the Government’s 30-hour entitlement is implemented does not work for providers and it certainly does not work for parents. A freedom of information request by the Early Years Alliance revealed that the cost of “fully funding” the entitlement would reach £7.49 an hour by 2020-21. Knowing that, the Government contribute average hourly funding of just £4.89 for a place for a three or four-year-old. Is it any wonder that the cost of childcare for working parents is spiralling up and up, while thousands of providers have closed and child-adult ratios are increasing in many settings?

The UK is among the most expensive places in the OECD for childcare, despite spending more than £4 billion of public money on it a year. The cost of childcare is a huge pressure on household finances at the best of times, but in the context of the current cost of living crisis, the pressure is unbearable for many families. High costs also deepen disadvantage, creating a system in which wealthier families can afford the highest quality provision, while families on lower incomes all too often have to settle for less.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, dealing with the devastating impact that it has had on our children should be a top priority for the Government. The youngest children are suffering the consequences of lockdown in their speech and language development, gross motor skills and social skills, and they have been denied many vital, indeed formative, experiences. In contrast to our Prime Minister, most of our youngest children will not have had a birthday party in the past two years—a contrast that shames him.

As a result of all that has been sacrificed, primary schools are reporting higher numbers of children who are not school-ready when they arrive in reception, and the impacts are worst for the poorest children. There is a gaping disadvantage gap that must be addressed urgently.

However, while the Government are mired in defending an indefensible Prime Minister, they have no vision or plan for the early years sector. There was no plan to support the sector through the pandemic; providers felt, in the words of the Early Years Alliance, as if they were “the forgotten sector”. There is no plan to support families with young children who are struggling with exorbitant childcare costs and who now also face a biting cost of living crisis. Most importantly, there is no plan for children, to provide the additional input that the youngest children need to catch up on all that they have lost during the pandemic.

Labour fully recognise the vital role of early years educators, who deserve recognition, gratitude and support, as well as a plan from this Government. I pay tribute to them today and I hope that this afternoon the Minister will provide the plan that is so desperately needed.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:44 pm, 25th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Steve Brine on securing this important debate, which comes during the APPG’s Childcare and Early Education Week. I know—I can get the sense from Westminster Hall today—how passionately all Members care about this issue. Given the importance of this sector, I welcome the awareness of it that this week will rightly bring. I am very keen to meet the APPG; I am sorry that we could not make that happen today, due to pre-existing commitments. Nevertheless, I am very keen to meet the members of the APPG and to work with them in the future.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, which have been constructive and thoughtful, and for the points they have made. I will endeavour to respond to as many as I can during the course of my response, conscious that we will have a Division in about 10 or 15 minutes.

I put on the record my and the Government’s sincere thanks and appreciation for the hard work, dedication and compassion that early years educators show every day. Despite the turbulence over the course of the pandemic, they have continued to keep our children safe and learning.

The early years experience is a vital part of a child’s education, as so many Members have set out today, that develops cognitive, social and emotional skills that set them up for life. Those who work in the sector are rightly passionate about those issues, and I have seen that at first hand. I have only been in my role as Minister for Children and Families since September, but I have visited numerous early years settings, and it is one of the best bits of the job. Every single one is a truly uplifting and inspirational experience, and I look forward to many more. A visit is always full of laughter, because the children come out with the funniest things—I forget, because mine are a little older now. We also see the passion and dedication of the staff, as well as their love, care and compassion—it is overwhelming.

Evidence shows that high-quality childcare supports children’s development, prepares children for school and, of course, allows parents to balance work and family life. We are doing more than any previous Government to ensure that as many families as possible can access high-quality and affordable childcare. I am proud of the progress that the early years sector has made in recent years. In 2019, nearly three out of four children achieved a good level of development, compared to around one out of two in 2013. In 2021, 97% of providers were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which was up from 85% in 2015. I am sure that Members will welcome that considerable progress.

It is important not to be complacent, and I will certainly not be. We must build on that excellent performance by the sector, particularly in the current tough circumstances. The question is, how can we do better, because we can do better? In my opinion, and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester set this out elegantly and articulately, the answer is people. It is all about people who are educators. As of spring 2021, there were 62,000 providers offering 1.5 million Ofsted-registered childcare places in England, with almost 330,000 educators in those settings. The majority of educators work in group-based settings, or for such providers, with 16% in school-based settings—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South said—

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

North, I apologise to my hon. Friend James Daly—I should not have got that one wrong! I will address his point later.

A further 12% are childminders and assistants. The expertise of those educators is our greatest asset in ensuring that early years provision is of the highest quality. We must invest in the workforce, and that is exactly what the Government are doing. I will set out how in more detail later.

I now turn to some of the specific points made in the debate, before going on to some of the broader themes. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, in his constructive contribution, had a quote—

“we would be lost without these people. They are truly amazing”— and I could not agree more. I have—from next week—a 10-year-old and a six-year-old. Recently, they have been through numerous childcare settings. I understand the importance of the settings and how vital they are not only to the parents, but to the children. They love—I use that word deliberately—the people who look after them in the day, those educators in the early years settings.

We have to address how the profession is viewed and valued—as educators and more than just childcare. My hon. Friend was absolutely right about that, and I will come on to it. He started and finished his speech with how early years staff are educators; early years is far more than just childcare. I totally agree, and I look forward to working with him and the APPG to see what more we can do in that area.

Jim Shannon talked about the work we do with the devolved Administrations. A huge amount of work goes on at the level of officials. I have to confess, I have not yet met my counterpart to discuss this issue, but I very much look forward to doing so.

Munira Wilson, who is not in her place but to whom I will respond none the less, raised the vital issue of speech and language. We have created the professional development programme and we have put a lot of emphasis on speech and language, because of its importance. We invested an extra £27 million, as part of the £180 million recovery programme. We also have the SEND review and, as part of that, it is vital that we have early identification and early intervention. It is important that that happens in early years settings wherever possible.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

On the point about SEN provision, I have been contacted by a nursery in Barnsley which provides support—one-to-one support, in many cases—for children with SEN. It is worried that a number of nurseries are having to turn away children because there simply is not the funding. My local council has a deficit of £11 million, which is set to double in the coming years. What are the Government doing on SEN generally, and more specifically on funding?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady is right that there are significant issues within the SEND system, which is why we have the SEND review. There are local authorities with significant pressure on their budgets. We are putting more money into the high-needs budget—about 10%, year on year—but we are conscious that money alone will not solve the issue. That is why we have the SEND review. I am working at pace on that as we speak. The SEND review will conclude and we will launch a Green Paper and a consultation by the end of March, so within the first quarter of the year. The hon. Lady’s point is well made.

My hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory mentioned people leaving the profession. I will come back to that point, because it is really important. Recruitment and retention are key. I hear her call about the pilots in Cornwall and I will certainly look into that; I am always keen to visit Cornwall, whenever possible, so I will bear that in mind.

My hon. Friend also mentioned a largely female workforce, which is something I want to address. I want to see more men working in early years settings. It is really important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester referenced, the Government want families to stay together wherever possible. Where they do not, there is not necessarily a male role model in the household, so it is really important in education settings that there are good male role models for children to look up to. We have the Pulse survey, which monitors the private, voluntary and independent sector. We meet with the sector regularly to keep on top of these issues.

My hon. Friend David Simmonds mentioned ratios, which I will come on to very briefly. I assure him that local authorities can retain only 5% of the funding allocated; they have to pass the rest on. My hon. Friend Andrew Lewer referenced the whole-child approach, the first 1,001 days and family hubs. I recognise that he welcomes the £300 million investment that the Government are making in this area.

Numerous hon. Members mentioned funding. I agree that high-quality childcare supports children’s learning and development and prepares young people for school, as well as having a huge impact on later outcomes. That is why the sector is working really hard to support children and their parents. It is also why the Government have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the last three years on early education entitlements, and we will continue to support families with their childcare costs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester rightly pointed out, we announced additional funding of £160 million for 2022-23, £180 million the year after and £170 million the year after that, compared to the current year. That is for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers and reflects the cost pressures that are anticipated and the changes in the number of eligible children.

So what does that mean? For 2022-23, we will increase the hourly funding rates for all local authorities—by 21p an hour for the disadvantage entitlement for two-year-olds in the vast majority of areas and by 17p an hour for the entitlement for three and four-year-olds.

I want to come on to the point about recruitment and retention, because they are really important.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

If the hon. Lady will give me time, I will come back to that point if I can.

Recruitment and retention are really important. Early years provision in 2021 was delivered by an estimated 328,000 staff. The majority of providers work to the required staff to child ratios for each age group, with some providers reporting that their ratios are more generous than the statutory minimum. We recognise that recruitment and retention are key issues for the sector, and local authorities are reporting significant pressures on providers. Importantly, we are working with the sector to build our understanding of the situation and how we might better support providers. We have commissioned qualitative research interviews on the theme of the early years workforce and a survey on the impact that covid is having on the workforce. We are working closely with the sector to identify some of those issues.

To aid recruitment and retention, we have also invested £153 million in programmes to support workforce developments as part of the £180 million package that I referenced. However, I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said about the pressures and the questions he rightly raised about salary and how that impacts on recruitment. I will continue to listen to him, the all-party parliamentary group and the sector.

On ratios, the statutory framework for early years foundation stage sets out the staff to child ratios to help ensure that there is adequate staffing to meet the needs of, and to safeguard, children. They assume that the youngest children are the most vulnerable—I think that is the right approach—and need the greatest number of staff, but providers may need more staff where other needs are identified—for example, special educational needs. The Government are committed to working with the sector to support covid recovery, as well as on the broader concerns.

I want to clarify that there is a difference in ratios between England and Scotland, and I will look at that closely, but I assure all those who have raised the issue of ratios that I will always take an evidence-based approach. I will be very careful and considered in the way that I approach this and I will always put at the heart of this issue the needs of children and young people and the safeguarding of children. I will of course work with the APPG.

My hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie referenced military-style childcare planning. I very much recognise that myself. Childcare costs and pressures are acute for many families. They are the second highest cost only to their mortgage or rent. We recognise that and it is something I am looking at that closely as part of my portfolio. I am interested to hear about her work on the universal credit offer. At the moment, the take-up for that is, frankly, too low.

With regard to maintained nursery schools, the points were well made and I echo the comments made about the late Member for Birmingham Erdington, Jack Dromey, who was a passionate advocate in this area. He last raised this with me just before Christmas and his voice will be sorely missed. The funding rate for maintained nursery schools will increase by 3.5% next year. That gives them the long-term certainty that they asked for. However, I recognise that they have some unique characteristics, such as a headteacher and a special educational needs co-ordinator, so I am looking at this closely and I will raise this with the Treasury.

Finally, I will touch again on SEND, which is absolutely a passion of mine. As part of the SEND review, we have to get early identification and early action at the heart of that. The earlier we identify the need, the better the support we can put in place, giving parents confidence, but most importantly, providing better outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs.

To close, I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester for the support he has given this agenda today and to all those who have contributed to the debate. The steps we have taken underline the importance of early education and the role of educators in that sector. The Government have made a substantial financial commitment that will in decades to come provide the workforce with the skills and expertise to ensure that no child is left behind. I look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend, the APPG and the sector to progress these issues further.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester 3:37 pm, 25th January 2022

I thank the excellent Minister, who has given us much that we across the sector and the different all-party groups represented here today can work with. He is a breath of fresh air to the sector and I thank him.

There has been a consistency and clarity across the speakers today, and they have all made very good points. However, there has been some consistent messaging around the workforce and pay. An early years worker once sent me an advert from the local newspaper that showed that dog walkers were offered more pay than those who look after our precious little ones. As long as that is the situation, Houston, we have a problem.

I repeat my call that we have to treat early years workers as educators and we have to pay them at a level commensurate with reception year teachers. We should have a policy aim to bridge that gap. It is very much a policy aim that I and the all-party group have and we would like to get it on to the Government’s agenda and make it their policy aim.

I thank my colleagues, and I thank Helen Hayes on the Opposition Front Bench for her constructive comments, although I would have liked to see more of her Back Benchers behind her—I really would.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the role of early years educators.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.