There has been a lot of focus on health and social care, but will education, including childcare, get the funding they need to recover from Covid?
While there was a big focus on health and social care last week, which have been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, it emerged that the Government has said it had no plans to replace the Education Recovery Commissioner and would instead ‘continue to consult with stakeholders’ on a plan. This follows the resignation of the previous Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins, who had estimated that the Government would need to spend 15 billion pounds on an education catch-up after Covid. The Government had offered 1.4 billion pounds.
When he resigned Sir Kevan said he did not believe that the money was sufficient for the extent of the learning and mental health issues facing the education sector as a result of Covid. Teaching unions and early years campaigners have expressed concern about the failure to appoint a replacement for Sir Kevan. The Early Years Alliance’s chief executive, Neil Leitch, said he was “incredibly concerned”. He said: “If the education recovery programme is to have a genuine, tangible impact on children and young people, the government first needs to recognise and acknowledge the scale of the challenge we are currently facing. Without an independent voice leading this process, it’s hard to see how this will happen.”
Instead the Government is reported to have commissioned edtech company Renaissance Learning, owned by a US private equity firm, to estimate pupils’ catch-up needs and monitor progress over a year. Will early years get a look in? Will schools get sufficient funds or is this just an exercise to bring down Sir Kevan’s recommendation to something nearer what the Government has offered? Moreover, won’t the impact be long term and therefore need monitoring for some years to come?
The Early Years Alliance had already highlighted the impact of the health and social care levy on nurseries in the absence of increased funding to cover staffing costs. Many nurseries have been struggling as a result of the pandemic and this is on top of prolonged underfunding of ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds. This has meant many are having to increase fees for parents or charge for other services. workingmums.co.uk has spoken to nurseries during the pandemic who have struggled to make ends meet. Some who operate several nurseries have used money from those in richer areas to subsidise those in more disadvantaged areas which have been particularly hit by the pandemic.
Figures earlier this year show a significant increase – more than 3,000 – in the number of childcare providers closing in recent months. The Government appeared to dismiss concerns about this last week. In an exchange with Labour’s Tulip Siddiq about childcare funding, children and families minister Vicky Ford said this was “largely a fall driven by childminders and carers, not nursery settings” as if a decrease in childminder numbers is of little consequence. The number of childminders has been falling for some time. While this has in the past been partially offset by increases in places at nurseries, childminders are an important part of the childcare mix, offering a more home-based type of care and can often be more flexible about timings, for instance, if parents have to start early in the morning or work later.
It seems to make little political sense to keep ignoring the real concerns of parents and childcare workers. A large survey of parents this weekend shows that childcare issues are a major problem for families and that the vast majority feel that it is should be treated as core infrastructure rather than a private issue for individual families.
The childcare fallout from Covid is very worrying, particularly for those living in disadvantaged areas, and, without childcare, parents will find it difficult to work. And that’s not to mention all the issues associated with school catch-up, particularly for those children who have had poor access to online learning during the pandemic.
We’ll have to wait until the Budget to see what the Government’s plans are, but there is a lot of concern within the sector that whatever funding that will be proffered won’t be nearly sufficient and that either the Government just hasn’t grasped the scale of the problems, doesn’t understand the depth of concern or simply thinks childcare is a ‘women’s issue’ and therefore of little consequence.