Why early-years education must be prioritised in pandemic recovery plans

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Xanthe Whittaker is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC). Her research considers digital transformations of work and their effect on the employment relationship, with a particular focus on social, political and ethical aspects of the development of technology in the labour process. Jennifer Tomlinson is Professor of Gender and Employment Relations Work, Employment and Relations Division at Leeds University Business School. Her research focuses on gender and social inequalities in organisational, occupational and labour market contexts. Kate Hardy is an Associate Professor in the same Division. Her research interests include issues surrounding sex work; the body and work; disability; gender and work; black, informal and underground economies; paid and unpaid work and labour.

Nursery School children and staff

This article first appeared on The Conversation UK.

<p>Nursery workers, childminders and nannies have been working hard throughout the pandemic. This work is, in part, what has allowed key workers to <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-52514919">keep working</a>. This has been crucial not only for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/24/when-our-nursery-reopened-after-covid-19-only-7-kids-came-back-parents-are-terrified">parents</a> and their employers, but also for the children themselves, especially those who are <a href="https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/chldrn/">vulnerable</a> or <a href="https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/education-in-england-annual-report-2020/">disadvantaged</a> and those with <a href="https://theconversation.com/how-to-support-children-with-special-educational-needs-as-they-return-to-school-139422">special educational needs</a>.</p>

<p>The government’s <a href="https://www.gov.uk/government/news/huge-expansion-of-tutoring-in-next-step-of-education-recovery">COVID recovery plan</a> for <a href="https://theconversation.com/covid-school-recovery-is-englands-1-4-billion-catch-up-plan-a-good-idea-162020">schools in England</a> includes £153 million for professional development for early-years practitioners. This is good news for a workforce that is chronically <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0950017009337057">underpaid and undervalued</a>. But the question is, will it be enough? </p>

<p>These early-years professionals have been forced to respond rapidly to uncertainty and change, which has only been exacerbated by <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/18/risky-vague-inconsistent-nursery-teachers-in-england-lament-covid-strategy">ambiguous and inadequate</a> official guidelines. The government was <a href="https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/article/coronavirus-dismay-as-early-years-staff-told-they-won-t-be-sent-testing-kits">slower</a>, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing to people working in private nurseries than in other parts of the education sector. </p>

<p>When schools closed to all but keyworkers’ children and vulnerable pupils,  nursery workers <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-55545277">continued to work</a>. And they were <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-55546359">not prioritised</a> for the vaccine despite their daily risk of exposure to the virus.  </p>

<p>COVID-related disruption and nursery closures affected the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/18/fewer-uk-children-school-ready-after-covid-nursery-closures">development</a> and behaviour of young children. And research shows that quality education and care is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S027277570900106X">central</a> to addressing this.</p>

<h2>Recovery plan</h2>

<p>Observers fear the £153 million lump sum is only a fraction of what is needed to enable staff to address the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/27/covid-toddlers-from-uks-poorest-families-hit-hardest-by-lockdown">widening</a> attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children. They also question whether it will ensure a healthy recovery for the early-years sector more broadly. </p>

<p>Professional development alone is not enough. Nursery workers are often paid little more than the minimum wage. Without improved salaries, this recovery package will only reinforce their perception that their skills and knowledge are <a href="https://cericleeds.wordpress.com/2021/01/26/invisible-keyworkers-why-responding-to-the-crisis-in-early-years-education-and-care-during-the-pandemic-must-address-working-conditions-for-early-years-workers/">not valued</a>.  </p>

<p>Studies suggests that early-years education is “foundational” – an essential structure that underpins the <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0958928716685689">economy</a> and <a href="https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-soc-073018-022401">society</a>. <a href="https://childcare-during-covid.org/">Our ongoing research</a> into the impact of COVID on the sector lends weight to studies which indicate that the past year has placed <a href="https://ifs.org.uk/publications/14990">significant financial strain</a> on providers.  </p>

<p>Meanwhile <a href="https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/news/2020/05/quarter-childcare-providers-fear-closure-within-year">a survey</a> conducted by the Early Years Alliance in May 2020, also found that one in four nurseries feared they would not reopen. While our research doesn’t indicate closures on this scale have or are taking place right now, the changes providers are making to adapt are likely to place greater strains on the workforce and threaten to undermine the quality of the education and care they provide. </p>

<p>Revenues plummeted when fewer children <a href="https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/the-covid-19-pandemic-and-the-early-years-december-2020/">attended nursery</a> due to the pandemic. The department of education’s subsequent decision to continue to provide funding at pre-pandemic levels did prevent many from falling into deficit. However, this measure was reversed in January 2021 and funding was altered to reflect actual attendance. </p>

<p>This is likely to have <a href="https://www.ceeda.co.uk/news/2019/early-years-sector-faces-a-quarter-of-a-billion-funding-cut-in-spring-term/">affected</a> those nurseries where attendance was lowest, which, our research suggests, will be those in areas of greatest deprivation. This will exacerbate the negative impact of the pandemic on the poorest families. </p>

<h2>Childcare crisis</h2>

<p>These pandemic-related losses have compounded <a href="https://theconversation.com/underpaid-and-undervalued-the-reality-of-childcare-work-in-the-uk-87413">long-standing</a> <a href="https://www.ceeda.co.uk/news/2019/time-for-a-sector-led-manifesto-for-early-years/">funding shortfalls</a> in early-years education. <a href="https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/news/2021/06/new-data-shows-ministers-knew-early-years-was-underfunded">New data</a> obtained by the Early Years Alliance through a freedom of information request shows that there is a shortfall of £2.60 per child for every hour that is funded through the government’s 30-hour so-called “<a href="https://theconversation.com/focusing-free-childcare-on-working-parents-is-short-sighted-44623">free</a>” childcare offer.  </p>

<p>In response, nurseries and childminders are taking measures to compensate for their financial losses. Many are using their savings and taking on debt. More worryingly, others have also cut staffing hours. They are reducing hours, raising fees and increasing the child-to-staff ratios, which, research suggests, will <a href="https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4642/1/RR320.pdf">lower the quality</a> of education and care. </p>

<p>The combination of these changes is likely to affect the <a href="https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/853358/CEYSP_2019_Report.pdf">affordability</a> of childcare. Importantly, it’s also likely to undermine the quality of the education and care the children receive.  </p>

<p>For parents, accessible and affordable childcare is <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0958928718808421">essential</a> to both remaining in work and returning to work. We conducted a <a href="https://childcare-during-covid.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/LSSI_DWP_Impact-of-Covid-on-childcare_finalv2.pdf">survey</a>  of 1,020 parents in England and Wales between January and February 2021. Of our respondents, 40% (344 parents) said that their ability to work was affected by childcare. Of these, one in ten had difficulty finding or securing a job because of problems accessing childcare during 2020. And almost one in five parents of the 344 said that a lack of childcare had an impact on their career progression.</p>

<p>Most parents who decided not to return to work after maternity or shared parental leave during the pandemic cited childcare and some, specifically the cost of childcare, as a significant factor. Research has shown that when childcare becomes more inaccessible and unaffordable, it is women who <a href="https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/business/documents/research/carrying-the-work-burden-of-covid-19/working-class-women-and-covid-final-report.pdf">disproportionately</a> pay the price in terms of their work and career progression. If this happens as a result of COVID, it will roll back decades of <a href="https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9780203978269/women-european-employment-colette-fagan-damian-grimshaw-jill-rubery-mark-smith">progress</a>. </p>

<p>The All Parties Parliamentary Group for Childcare and Early Education has <a href="https://connectpa.co.uk/early-years-catch-up-premium-needed/">called on</a> the chancellor Rishi Sunak and education secretary Gavin Williamson to fund a premium for the early-years of up to £3,000 per child. This echoes <a href="https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/4827/call-for-extra-funding-for-early-years-care">the call</a> made by specialists at the University of Leeds, the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University for early-years provision to be more thoroughly included in COVID recovery plans. Responding to these urgent calls must be a government priority.<!-- Below is The Conversation's page counter tag. Please DO NOT REMOVE. --><img src="https://counter.theconversation.com/content/163342/count.gif?distributor=republish-lightbox-basic" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important" /><!-- End of code. If you don't see any code above, please get new code from the Advanced tab after you click the republish button. The page counter does not collect any personal data. More info: https://theconversation.com/republishing-guidelines --></p>

<p><span><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/xanthe-whittaker-1244373">Xanthe Whittaker</a>, Research Fellow in Human Resource Management, <em><a href="https://theconversation.com/institutions/university-of-leeds-1122">University of Leeds</a></em>; <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/jennifer-tomlinson-1245701">Jennifer Tomlinson</a>, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations, <em><a href="https://theconversation.com/institutions/university-of-leeds-1122">University of Leeds</a></em>, and <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kate-hardy-1094402">Kate Hardy</a>, Associate Professor in Work and Employment Relations, <em><a href="https://theconversation.com/institutions/university-of-leeds-1122">University of Leeds</a></em></span></p>

<p>This article is republished from <a href="https://theconversation.com">The Conversation</a> under a Creative Commons license. Read the <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-early-years-education-must-be-prioritised-in-pandemic-recovery-plans-163342">original article</a>.</p>

Related content

Contact us

If you would like to get in touch regarding any of these blog entries, or are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact:

Email: research.lubs@leeds.ac.uk
Phone: +44 (0)113 343 8754

Click here to view our privacy statement

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.