As part of our ongoing #ournurserylife campaign we chat with the Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years about the importance of the sector, early years funding, the challenges presented by COViD19, and her New Year's resolutions.
Early years practitioners are unsung heroes. They deliver a fourth emergency service to working families in need of childcare, and the education they provide to young children can make a huge difference to their life chances. Tulip Siddiq MP
TNL: Many thanks for Minister for making the time to interview with us, particularly during such a tumultuous and challenging period.
Covid19 has thrown up an unprecedented series of challenge for all corners of our society, and early years practitioners have been on the front line of many of those challenges.
How long do you anticipate disruption to the Early Years and Education sectors through 2021? Is there anything not being done for the sector by government this coming year that should be?
TS: The impact of this pandemic on the early years sector is far from over, and with infections rising rapidly around the country and with a new national lockdown things appear to be getting worse before they get better. The lockdown could wipe out demand for childcare – which is already lower than usual – and this will further reduce providers’ already low incomes. Nurseries are having to deal with high levels of staff absence due to infection and self-isolation, forcing some to shut entirely, and childminders are facing similar levels of instability.
Despite calls from Labour, Ministers are this month choosing to press ahead with damaging changes to early years funding which will lead to substantial losses. We urgently need the Government to rethink this misguided decision, and to give nurseries and other early years providers the targeted support and resources that Labour has been calling for so they can keep providing their essential services in a safe environment.
TNL: What would you want to pass on as a message to those working in the sector during these difficult times?
TS: Early years practitioners are unsung heroes. They deliver a fourth emergency service to working families in need of childcare, and the education they provide to young children can make a huge difference to their life chances.
Several recent reports have highlighted the shockingly low levels of pay for early years workers – with many not even receiving the minimum wage - as well as a lack of career progression in the sector. This is the result of the government’s chronic underfunding of the early years sector. Ministers have sat on their hands as talented nursery staff and childminders have been driven out by the lack of pay and recognition for their vital work. Early years work has been made less attractive as a result of Ministers’ incompetence and there’s been little progress on improving qualifications, pay structures and opportunities within the sector.
My message to the early years workforce is that they deserve so much better. I of course take every opportunity to thank them for their tireless, invaluable work throughout this pandemic and always, but thanks alone is simply not enough when they are being asked to do so much for so little. This crisis must be a wake-up call that we cannot go back to undervaluing the workers who provide essential services like childcare and early education.
Labour has been arguing for a much greater focus on wellbeing in education settings and in the workplace, with proper support for mental health services. This has become particularly important in the pandemic, which has put huge pressure on key workers like those in the early years sector, who are often putting their own health at risk to perform their essential duties. Tulip Siddiq MP
TNL: The links between the quality of Early Years Education and closing the attainment gap in education are well established. Because of this, SureStart was praised by some as one of the most significant achievements of the last Labour government. What approach would a future Labour government take to addressing this gap?
TS: Leading health experts have identified the early years of a child’s life as the period when inequalities have the greatest impact on their life chances, and when interventions can make the biggest difference. That’s why investment in early years education and programmes like Sure Start have been so important, and why the cuts they have faced over the last decade have led to such a dramatic widening of the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children. A Labour Government would always seek to build on achievements like Sure Start and ensure the best possible early years support reaches families regardless of their economic circumstances and location.
TNL: Labour is as of last year under new leadership. Has this led to a change in approach on Early Years policy, or will the direction of travel be much the same?
TS: Keir Starmer shares my passion for ensuring that children get the best start in life. He spoke repeatedly about the need for investment in the early years of children’s lives in his campaign for the Labour leadership. While coronavirus has set back many children’s futures and posed an existential threat to the early years sector, Keir and I will keep fighting and not lose sight of the long-term goal of making sure that all children can get the best possible early education and opportunities. Keir has pledged to make Britain the best country to grow up in - getting early years support right will always be a key part of that.
TNL: Do you think the Government has done enough to support practitioners, settings and parents during the past year?
TS: Early years providers have been struggling for years as a result of the Government’s underfunding of free childcare entitlements, leaving a funding gap of over £600 million in 2019/20.
The coronavirus crisis, however, has dealt a hammer blow to the sector. On top of the huge financial hit that nurseries and childminders took while closed from March to June, when they were unable to claim as much furlough funding as they were promised, they are now having to contend with continued low demand and extra Covid-related costs which will be exacerbated by the new lockdown. This has put the future of at least a quarter of all providers in jeopardy, yet there has been almost no targeted financial support from the Government. Providers haven’t even been able to claim for the same additional costs as schools for things like cleaning, and early years funding changes from this month will tip many struggling nurseries and childminding businesses over the edge.
The vast majority of childcare managers and practitioners do not feel that they have received anything like enough support from the government, and I’m afraid that they are right. The impact of this has been felt by parents, who continue to find it very difficult to get the childcare they need. Accessibility and affordability is far too often a postcode lottery, and this has to change.
TNL: Mental health support and challenges for practitioners are a growing area of conversation, with many placed under great work pressures. That Nursery Life will be focussing on this particularly this coming month. What role do you see this playing in the approach of any potential Labour government to Early Years policy and funding?
TS: Labour has been arguing for a much greater focus on wellbeing in education settings and in the workplace, with proper support for mental health services. This has become particularly important in the pandemic, which has put huge pressure on key workers like those in the early years sector, who are often putting their own health at risk to perform their essential duties. I have raised the need for specific mental health support for the early years workforce with government during this pandemic.
TNL: What has been your most impactful personal experience in your time working as a Shadow Minister. What has impressed you the most?
And, finally, what are your New Years resolutions!
TS: I have had the privilege of visiting several nurseries (in person and virtually!) over the last year, and it has been amazing to see the dedication of the staff at one of the most difficult times. I know from the experiences of my own children how important early education can be, but it was truly inspiring to see the work of dedicated early years practitioners first hand and to hear from parents about the impact it has made to their children’s development. You really get a sense of the community spirit that has got us through this awful pandemic, and that will see us through another difficult few months. A pretty good New Year’s Resolution is not to take for granted the incredible efforts that our communities are making, and to do absolutely everything I can to help.
Tulip Siddiq MP’s latest article on the lockdown and early years can be read at PoliticsHome here.
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