Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
The Government has compelled childcare providers to close to all bar the children of key workers, possibly for the duration of the public health crisis.
However, it is supporting childcare providers – the majority of whom are small private, voluntary and independent organisations – during this difficult period with a range of measures, including continuing to pay for free early years entitlement places for two to four-year olds despite closures.
However, many providers fear permanent closure, with some already having shut permanently to avoid going into debt. Others prompt outrage by asking financially-stretched parents to carry on paying fees regardless of closure.
Covid-19 threatens the sustainability of nurseries, already fragile because of small profit margins and fixed overheads, and brings the childcare sector’s long-term issues into sharp relief.
Afflicted by high staff turnover rates, nurseries are struggling to recruit, and well-qualified staff are being replaced with less-experienced, less-qualified staff. Salary is the principal reason that well-qualified nursery workers give for leaving their role, most commonly for a shop floor. Between 2015 and 2019, the proportion of staff with the highest level of qualification (Level 3) plummeted by 31 per cent, whilst the percentage of staff with no qualifications increased in tandem.
Despite significant increases in government funding in recent decades, we still aren’t getting childcare right. Parents face spiralling prices whilst staff are simultaneously so poorly paid that many of them would rather abandon their nursery job in favour of stacking shelves.
More importantly, our childcare system is not yet working for all children. Only a year ago, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee reported that nearly a third of children are still reaching the age of five without being ready to start school.
Despite the unprofitable nature of the sector, we know that for many families in Britain childcare costs are prohibitive and burdensome. A family with two children under four years of age can expect to spend an average of £484 every week on full-time nursery care. According to research by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, 62 per cent of parents say they work fewer hours because of childcare costs and 17 per cent have had to leave their job due to childcare. For an average-earning, two-parent family with two children under four, childcare costs amount to a shocking 46 per cent of their combined net income.
Why is childcare so expensive and simultaneously so poorly paid? Fixed costs are high, with stricter ratio requirements of staff to children relative to other countries. For children aged under two, for example, the adult to child ratio must be one to three. In addition, National Minimum Wage increases have reportedly hit the childcare sector hard, with 63 per cent of providers surveyed planning to increase fees in response. Organisations that represent early years care providers have accused the Government of underfunding the 30 hours policy of free childcare for the working parents of three- to four-year-olds, and thus forcing fee increases.
High-quality childcare is undeniably a vital component in guaranteeing British children the best early years start, and the public and political profile of the importance of early years has risen in recent times. In January 2020, the Duchess of Cambridge launched a public survey into early childhood, “Five Big Questions on the Under Fives”, aiming to initiate a nationwide conversation on the importance of early childhood.
But thinking seriously about early years means thinking seriously about what happens in nurseries, where infants may spend hours every week. The evidence suggests that high-quality childcare needs high-quality staff. Once the coronavirus crisis has been weathered, the Government’s first step in improving early years outcomes must be to reverse the exodus of experienced, well-qualified staff from the sector. Childcare must cease to be a low-pay, low-status job.