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Why funding early years is critical

Janet King Janet King Sector Manager for Education and Childcare, NCFE

Emotional wellbeing has never before been on our radar in such an open and accepting way. Yet, even with increased discussion on the topic, we remain all too aware of the mental health concerns that continue to affect children and young people.  

This is where early years has a significant role to play and, by properly funding the sector, we could go a long way towards addressing the issues that have become so prevalent today.  

We also have to consider the wellbeing of those working in the sector – particularly when it comes to workload stress and pressure, but also around ensuring anyone entering the sector can see a future pathway where they can grow and develop their skills.  

Impact on children 

Research undertaken by NCFE, on behalf of the Department for Education as part of the review of the Early Years Educator criteria, found that 56% of parents whose children were using formal childcare before Covid-19 reported that the disruption caused by the pandemic had “harmed” their child’s social and educational development (Ipsos, 2022).  

According to statistics from Young Minds 2021, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021 a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s typically five children in every classroom. 

There can be little doubt that Covid-19 has impacted the mental health of children and young people over recent years but there are wider societal issues at play that we cannot ignore. 

The early years sector provides a service to society at all levels. It contributes enormously to addressing the attainment gaps already apparent between children of different socio-economic backgrounds by the time they start school (Nuffield, 2021).  

Within the education sector, we’re doing what we can to help contribute towards a solution. 

Our specialist early years and education teams at NCFE recognise the importance of early childhood experiences, which is why we provide a range of regulated qualifications to promote awareness, increase knowledge and improve skills of child development.  

One of our most recent is the NCFE CACHE Level 4 Award in Early Years Emotional Wellbeing. Developed with input from School Improvement Liverpool and trialled with charitable organisations such as Centre 56, which support families who’ve experienced domestic abuse and crisis situations, this new qualification is already making a difference to children’s lives. 

Impact on staff 

The Government has implemented a recovery programme for the early years sector that involves a phased introduction of high-quality qualifications and targeted continued professional development (CPD). This is a focussed attempt to equip early years professionals with the necessary skills to target any negative effects of the pandemic.  

Whilst this is welcomed, the sector remains unstable plighted by financial pressure and stress.  

Childcare Policy in England is all too often smeared with woeful and distracting tales of underfunding and availability (particularly for children with SEND), outrageous business taxation for settings, a recruitment and retention crisis, and widespread unaffordability for families. 

Issues like unaffordability will rightly always make the headlines, but these stories will so often forget to include the tireless education and care provided for babies, children, and families by highly qualified, committed staff.  

The majority of staff working in the private, voluntary, and independent (PVI) early years sector struggle to be heard, but yet advocate for perhaps our most precious resource day in and day out. 

One organisation that campaigns tirelessly for the early years sector and advocates for children and families is the Early Years Alliance. It has further highlighted the needs of professionals working within the sector, expressing concern for their mental health.  

Its 2018 Minds Matter survey considered the impact of working in childcare and the early years sector on practitioners' mental health. The findings revealed that staff are often stressed about work and that work-related mental health issues have had an impact on personal relationships – this was before the additional pressures caused by Covid-19.  

Layers of underfunding through policy intervention has left staff in the sector bruised and battered, depleted, and exhausted but not without passion, pride or resolve. It’s not weak to nurture, but it is absolutely unacceptable to continue to exploit a sector that keeps on giving because it’s selfless, perceptive, and resolute, without accepting a level of statutory accountability. 

Proposed ratio changes  

In July 2022, former Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi supported a new childcare regulatory change consultation that went on to cause uproar in the sector. It proposed changing staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds. 

The promise here was that this would give early years settings more flexibility in how they run their businesses while maintaining safety and quality of care with a significant reduction to fees for families.  

It included a package of measures set to increase childcare support for parents, boost the number of childminders and drive take up of childcare offers, to address rising costs for settings. Childcare for children aged zero to two is the most expensive for providers to deliver, largely given the need for higher supervision levels.  

The sector had grave concerns from the outset and identified that any financial gain would unlikely be felt by parents, so dire the situation. Thankfully, this reform has since been shelved as of January 2023. I firmly believe the strength of attachments, relationships and connections that are the thread to a holistic healthy disposition would all have been threatened by such a regressive move. 

Benefits to children’s outcomes 

In January 2023, The Sutton Trust published its report Equal Hours, which investigates the impact of hours spent in early years provision on children’s outcomes at age five by socio-economic background.  

For children in more advantaged families, early childhood care and education is less important than for disadvantaged children. For better-off children, outcomes from attendance are more mixed.   

But for children from disadvantaged families, there are huge benefits for cognitive development associated with early childhood education and care usage between the ages of three and five years. These benefits are substantially greater if the provision is of high quality.  

There are some socio-emotional benefits, but also some socio-emotional drawbacks linked with formal group early childhood education and care usage. The drawbacks largely concern externalising (or antisocial) and internalising (children becoming easily upset or anxious) behaviours. However, these drawbacks are not found for disadvantaged children in high-quality provision.   

Further to this, there are clear benefits of time in early years provision of up to 20 hours per week for disadvantaged children, and no evidence of negative impacts for longer hours (again, if provision is of high quality). Giving all families access to the 30-hour entitlement would give disadvantaged children access to additional hours of early years provision that is likely to be beneficial to their development.  

Expanding eligibility would have wider benefits for families and for the economy. Currently, families can fall in and out of eligibility for 30 hours, leaving parents with uncertainty about their childcare arrangements - which can make it a challenge when looking to move into work or take on extra hours. 

Why funding early years now is critical 

What is of critical importance now, and in the future, is that as a society we recognise the absolutely vital role of attachments and the significance of trusting relationships for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.  

This is fundamental to holistic health and is at the core of children’s emotional development. Funding the early years properly can only benefit society as a whole – which is why this matter is so crucial.  

We have to do more to support our next generation, as well as those influencing, caring for and shaping their lives. 

Click to view our Education and Childcare Career Toolkit

You can read our Early Years Recovery Programme: Level 3 Early Years Educator Qualification Review in full here. 

What is of critical importance, both now and in the future, is that as a society we recognise the absolutely vital role of attachments and the significance of trusting relationships for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. 

Janet King, Sector Manager for Education and Childcare, NCFE
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