While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the entire education sector, this period has been particularly challenging for nurseries, pre-schools and other early years settings. Ofsted’s recently published findings on the pandemic’s impact on children of all ages and backgrounds. It reported that children who had been hardest hit by the pandemic actually regressed in terms of their basic skills and learning. Similarly, research by the Sutton Trust from May 2021  emphasised that over half of parents of pre-school children were worried about Covid-19’s impact on their children’s wellbeing and long-term development.
The Social Mobility Commission report ‘The stability of the early years workforce in England’, published in 2020, had previously found that that low pay, heavy workloads and a lack of career development for early years workers were likely to have a serious impact on nurseries, pre-schools and other settings. The pandemic proceeded to lay bare the vulnerability of the already struggling early years sector. In April 2022, the Department for Education published three new reports which were commissioned from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and Frontier Economics . The reports focus on Covid’s impact on the early years sector and jointly emphasise the challenges posed by funding constraints and severe staffing issues (including workforce recruitment / retention), as well as wider economic pressures and generally rising costs. The reports also raised concerns about deregulation and the mooted relaxation in staff/child ratios – stating that it might lead shortages of qualified and experienced people in the sector.
The same reports also found that 72% of private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries and pre-schools have lost staff since the pandemic began. Nearly half (47%) of PVI nurseries and pre-schools said the main reason for staff leaving was to seek better pay while, worryingly, an even higher proportion (60%) reported that those exiting are leaving the sector entirely. The reports also collectively found that 54% of PVI settings and 49% of childminders report that their total costs have ‘notably’ increased on pre-Covid levels. Indeed, only 39% of private providers and 21% of voluntary providers were in financial surplus in 2021 and, for childminders, the figure fell to just 19% .
It is worth noting that all main political parties are now emphasising the growing problems over childcare’s affordability. The main focus of the current government, in terms of addressing these early years financial challenges, has generally been on parents’ employment and behaviour, not their circumstances. However, the paradigm has started to shift in recent months. For example, in October 2021, Nadhim Zahawi MP, during his first conference speech as Education Secretary, recognised that 40% of educational inequality is ‘baked in’ by the age of five. He also said that the Government would invest a record £180 million in ‘outstanding’ early years staff.
Looking ahead, we can expect a stronger focus on early years issues over the months ahead. Ofsted’s recently published five-year strategy  emphasises the inspectorate’s work in the early years sector and recognises the pandemic’s impact on young children. Indeed, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), Amanda Spielman, has said that Ofsted wants to bring early education to the fore and will work on developing the associated evidence base. The organisation’s new 2022-2027 strategy not only acknowledges that the sector has been hit hard by Covid-19 but quantifies the problem by recognising that, during the course of the pandemic, the number of registered childcare providers fell from over 75,000 to just below 70,000 – with childminders accounting for the bulk of the reduction. However, ultimately, Ofsted’s commitments will only work if they are backed by government policy that supports the Early Years sector. The sector also needs appropriate investment to guarantee that nurseries, pre-schools and other early years settings are able to provide quality care and education.
by Monica Thompson, Consultant
 The three reports can be read below:
- Early years workforce and business planning during the pandemic
- Survey of childcare and early years providers and coronavirus (COVID-19): wave 4
- Providers’ finances: survey of childcare and EY providers 2021