It should have been music to the early years sector’s ears. Back in July, as part of an inquiry into life chances, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Education Select Committee, ‘We have a spending review coming up and I see my role as very much working with the sector to put our best evidence forward.’ So why weren’t we all celebrating? Finally a minister willing to work with us to call on the Treasury to provide more funding.
Because this comment wasn’t about the early years sector as a whole, but rather, one specific part of it: maintained nursery schools.
In fact, there is a growing parliamentary call for more support for maintained nursery schools. Just last month, a cross-party group of 70 MPs wrote to both Mr Zahawi and chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss arguing that ‘a long-term funding solution is now urgent’.
And of course, that’s no bad thing. On the contrary, who can blame MPs for voicing concerns when maintained settings in their constituency are facing funding cuts of nearly a third? When the Government announced that it would be introducing a new universal base rate for early years providers back in 2016 as part of the new funding formula, we had hoped that PVI provider rates would go up to maintained funding levels, not that they would be dragged down to ours. So I’m certainly not criticising the valid concerns that have been raised over the long-term sustainability of these settings.
But when I think of all the emails and calls I receive from private and voluntary nurseries, pre-schools and childminders week after week, month after month; providers who are barely managing to make ends meet, and those who have finally been forced to close their doors for good, some after decades of operating, I can’t help but find this almost exclusive focus on ensuring the viability of maintained nursery schools more than a little galling.
'PVIs are vital to the 30 hours'
Let’s not forget that 82 per cent of 30 hours places are delivered by PVI providers. Like it or not, the Government must recognise that in order to have any chance of building an affordable, sustainable and quality childcare system in this country, our sector is absolutely vital.
Of course, I’m well aware that there isn’t a bottomless pot of Government funding and that, in the run-up to the Autumn Budget this month, and the Spending Review next year, there will be countless organisations lobbying the various departments demanding more money.
But the fact remains that it was the Government that chose to promise parents 30 hours of free childcare, and so it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure it is funded properly. And for the Department for Education (DfE) not to extend the same courtesy to PVI providers as it has to maintained nursery schools, and at least attempt to work with the sector to gather the necessary evidence and put the best possible argument forward to the Treasury for better funding is, to me, unforgivable. It may be easier to address the funding problems of 400 maintained nursery school settings than it is to do so for the 60,000-odd PVI providers, but that’s no excuse not to even try.
The DfE’s rationale seems to be that, despite the almost universal outcry from the sector, things aren’t really that bad for us. Speaking in a recent Westminster Hall debate, Mr Zahawi said, ‘While there are, of course, sad examples of providers closing … there is no evidence of widespread closures in the non-domestic childcare market’ adding ‘The Ofsted data published in June 2018 showed that the number of childcare places has remained stable since 2012.’
It’s true that Ofsted’s statistics haven’t shown a dramatic plunge in overall provider numbers since the introduction of the 30 hours. But those latest figures only cover sector trends up until March 2018 – and the sector has always said that the impact of the scheme was likely to become gradually but increasingly evident as the policy rolled out further, and more and more children took up places. And of course, there will be a number of providers who will have managed to get through this year unscathed, but will struggle significantly in the years to come. 80 per cent of providers who responded to our survey on 30 hours earlier this year said that if their funding rates stay the same next year, it will have somewhat or significant negative financial impact on them. As one provider put it to us, ‘Although we have made a success/survived the first year of the 30 hours, we are very worried by what the second year will mean with no increase in funding – our business rates went up 40 per cent, our rent went up 25 per cent and the living wage and auto-enrolment continues to rise.’
And of course, let’s not overlook the fact that the minister’s comment referred specifically to ‘non-domestic market’ for good reason – because there is a vital part of the sector that has indeed seen mass provision closures: childminders. Over the past six years, we’ve lost a total of nearly 16,000 from the sector – more than a quarter. This is simply not sustainable, and the Government – which has publicly acknowledged the vital quality, flexible provision that childminders deliver – knows this all too well.
So my call to the DfE is this: if you can work with the maintained nursery school sector and advocate on their behalf for better funding, then you can, and should, do the same for PVI providers. Leaving us to slowly fall by the wayside because fighting on our behalf is not such an ‘easy win’ is simply indefensible. With the upcoming Budget and Spending Review, now is the perfect opportunity. There may not be many others.