A passionate call for more investment in early years

The Early Years Alliance’s annual conference heard some powerful advocates for the crucial role of early years education.

Small child playing with brightly coloured bricks on the floor in a childcare setting


The childcare sector is overworked, overwhelmed and at risk of burnout, the Early Years Alliance [EYA] annual conference heard last night.

Neil Leitch, CEO of the EYA, gave an impassioned speech about the state of the sector after years of being underfunded and undervalued.

He said this was one of the most challenging periods the sector had experienced as it faced a recruitment and retention crisis that it had never witnessed before, years of underfunding and “another promise of free childcare” cooked up with no consultation with childcare professionals. Meanwhile, the public consultation that did happen – on childcare ratios – was completely thrown out.

Leitch said the Budget was “about childcare not children”.  There was no mention of quality of care. He said those charged with looking after the nation’s children “rolled over and allowed our children to become numbers on a Treasury spreadsheet”, adding that children professionals were viewed solely as babysitters when they did so much in terms of education, social care and more, particularly at a time of huge financial crisis.

Leitch spoke about his own background of poverty and being taken into care at the age of nine. Three of his older siblings died prematurely due to alcohol and drugs, he said, because no-one intervened to help them when they were young. He said he was not talking about himself to get the sympathy vote, but to show how his experiences had made him value kindness, the kindness he sees in many childcare settings.

Tackling poverty

Lord John Bird was another speaker. He also spoke about growing up in poverty and violence. He was in an orphanage for three years. He put this down to a lack of early years intervention. “Without early years we are absolutely screwed,” he said. He learned to read and write in prison as a teenager and went on to get a job as a printer and from there to found the Big Issue. He is currently advocating for a ministry of poverty to prevent poverty and help people to exit from it. He said other ministries, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, were more concerned with helping people make the best of poverty rather than preventing it or helping people out of it.

Lord Bird added that he has also been involved in ‘the big future campaign’ which is focused on everything from education and jobs to health. However, he said that even though those involved are committed to social justice even they had overlooked the crucial role of early years. He is partnering with EYA to ensure early years has a bigger voice.

The conference also heard from Beverley Barnett-Jones, Associate Director for System and Impact at the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, who spoke of the need to look at social issues with a ‘child-impact’ lens and of the vital role of early years in supporting children, families and communities.  Talking about the role of early years in tackling some of the post-Covid challenges for young children, she said: “We all need support, someone alongside us, as these are the moments that can make that life-changing difference. This is what you all do every day and I thank you for it as a fellow professional and as a benefactor.”

Saying that the case for investment in early years is strong, she said: “We’re not getting the policies we need, so we have to do it ourselves in a lot of ways, when it comes to the early years.”

In a Q & A session, Barnett-Jones said building a bank of evidence is crucial to getting policymakers to act. Leitch said of policies such as the ratio changes that he recommended childcare providers refusing to accept what was being foisted upon them. “Never give up,” he said.

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