Save our Childcare Sector!

It was with a very heavy heart that I left a meeting at the Department for Education last week! Firstly having missed the opportunity to meet with Minister Dineage due to appalling public transport and then her being ‘called back to Parliament”, and secondly, after being told quite coldly ‘the 30hrs Free Childcare will be going ahead as it is a ‘manifesto pledge’.

I must point out that ‘manifesto pledges’ are not legally binding and do NOT have to be enforced as much as the public can not insist they are. There are a number of manifesto pledges over the years that have one votes but never been acted upon and there is nothing you or I can do about it. Therefore, in order to SAVE our childcare sector I strongly believe the 30hrs Free Childcare is a pledge that needs to be seriously re-thought!

My concerns for the sector however, do not end with the 30hrs Free Childcare pledge, there are many far reaching concerns and I share now with  you the document I left for Minister Dineage to read and hopefully act upon!

I truly believe that we are a great country and that this Government does want to achieve even greater outcomes. I have seen that the Labour Party aims to establish an Early Years Taskforce. However, I very much feel that the sector cannot wait for another election and new party to take action, the crisis is now and if it continues on this path will be beyond repair.

I have been in this profession for 23 years and if I cannot effect change in the next two years when I reach my 25th anniversary I, like so many others, will leave. I therefore want one thing, to be part of effective and positive change to save the childcare sector and in turn child development, and here is how I believe that can be done through a Conservative Party Task Force.

Funding

Funding is a big concern for many nurseries and I have attached just some of the comments on social media from other owners (not attached in this blog). Whilst many focus on the 30hrs funding proposal I believe there are other factors too. There are so many ‘benefits’ that can be accessed by families they become confusing and splintered in their impact; working tax credits, tax-free childcare account, 15 & 30 hrs funding etc. Quite often the benefit paid to parents direct is not paid on to childcare and fees are left owing putting settings at risk. One simplified system benefitting all parents is needed.

My proposal for reform are:

  1. Re-structure schools to be the educational settings they were designed to be for 5 years and above and children under 5 back in to childcare. This will also work to address the lack of space, resources and teachers that reception years are currently facing – 100,00’s across the country. Thus enabling the childcare sector to regain most of their customer base lost over the last 15years to SMP rules and nursery schools.

With regards to ‘customer base’ in what other industry could it withstand a customer base drop by 50% through enforced policies and state funded competition and STILL maintain the same standards in minimum requirements whilst expenditure is increased? I cannot think of any, yet that is the situation childcare is being forced in to.

A child would join us at 3 months old and stay with us until the term in which they are 5, on average 56 months. However:

  • Changes to SMP rules mean babies are on average 9 months when they start – this has an impact on child development I will expand on in that section
  • State funded schools are now taking children at an ever increasingly young age, in some settings as young as two, without having to adhere to the same minimum requirements that are placed on childcare settings and without the same provision or knowledge of care requirements.
  • School intake has changed from termly, which supported children better in their individual developmental journey, particularly summer born babies, to generally one in take per year meaning children leave us in the school year in which they are 5. If they have not been coerced in to attending the school nursery.

What this means is that our customer base is now on average 30 months, almost half, meaning nurseries now need twice as many children through the doors just to be in the same position they were in 15 years ago, but now we have to do that with limited and non-negotiable funding.

  1. Abolish the 15 & 30hrs scheme in its current proposed form and provide all parents with access to either parent/child classes and/or childcare settings from birth through to 5 years.

Enforcing set hours and for only 3 & 4 year olds is both missing a huge opportunity to develop a crucial age of foundation skills in the under 2’s but also increasing the costs to the parents of children under 3 years. A new set value voucher system that allows parents to choose the services they wish to attend – parent/child classes or contribute to their childcare for a return to work or access a pre-school setting for example whilst staying at home. Not only values the choices of parents but ensures ALL children are given access to services and development without the financial restrictions on nurseries.

It is against fair competition regulations to enforce one set of rules and funding on settings that are required to adhere to differing regulation and standards. For example; a ‘pre-school’ that only operates to offer two 3 hour sessions can do so from a local village hall or scout hut with hugely different provision to that of a full day care nursery.

The 30 hour policy was made as a pledge to “make it easier for these parents to work and is another move designed to meet the government’s commitment to make work pay.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said:

For too long, rising childcare costs have been a barrier preventing parents and particularly mothers from working. That’s why I’m delighted that in just a few months’ time, we will see the first families benefiting from the government’s offer of 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents.

We have made a commitment to help working people, and through this extended offer we will help thousands more parents who want to return to work to do so.

However, in its current proposed form and funding rates, which allows parents of 3 & 4 year olds to access 30 hours over 3 days (this equals 3 full days of childcare with no wrap-around care) completely free to the parents it will, without question, result in:

  • Some nurseries cutting corners resulting in more ‘exposé’ reports such as those we saw on Good Morning Britain this week – which will be putting children at risk
  • Nurseries forced to pass on the under-funded 3 & 4 yr old places to parents of children under 3 years – which will make childcare for this age group unaffordable resulting in fewer parents in work or returning to work which is the direct opposite of the Government’s policy outcome
  • Many nurseries will close

 

  1. Allow parents to subscribe to a salary sacrifice scheme for any remaining childcare fees over and above that provided by a new single structure scheme as in point 2. Salary paid direct to the setting via a scheme that can be administered by employers direct and only sub-contracted out of choice not legal requirement, and exempt from tax and NI contributions by parents.
  2. Make childcare zero-rated for VAT – this will have an enormous instant impact on the financial pressures of the industry.

Notwithstanding the funding of tax-free accounts and other benefits, the proposed budget for 15 & 30 hrs alone if re-distributed across pregnancy to the ‘term’ in which a child was 5 would have a direct benefit to all parents and when coupled with a salary sacrifice scheme would provide an instant impact on the financial viability of childcare to a family. In addition, by no longer forcing the underfunded portion of costs back on to the families with children under 3 will also alleviate the need for further increases that are imminent with current plans.

 

Child Development Regression

I do not need to quote again all of the evidence I gave you in my letter or in that I sent to the former Prime Minister. Development is regressing at an alarming rate but I do believe if acted upon now this can be remedied:

  1. Re-structure the EYFS and include the tried and tested (and successful) developmental achievement models of Mary Sheridan for example. The current outcomes are too broad and does not allow for early identification of needs. Point 3.24 of the Dame Tickell report demonstrates the need of ‘early identification’. This is not happening due to the broad outcomes but in addition when it is highlighted it is not being acted upon by local authority. We have identified 3 children aged 18 months who are not walking with significant needs that are not being acted upon. We have 25 children in one nursery that we have identified have speech and language delays but these are not acted upon. I can provide more detailed reports if necessary.
  2. Allow settings, other than Waldorf-Steiner and independent nursery schools to use their own developmental programmes that meet those standards without repercussion from Ofsted inspections as this is a clear violation of fair practice. We can demonstrate that our care based, holistic and heuristic programme achieves, if not surpasses the EYFS when allowed to operate without the constraints of the EYFS. The Dame Tickell report (point 2.12) states “I am in no doubt that the EYFS should be made more flexible”.

The Dame Tickell report (point 2.1) clearly states “The EYFS is a framework for all children from birth through to the end of the reception year in all types of early years provision.” However, there is a significant number of children in the care of nannies and au pairs, also a form of early years provision. These however, are unregulated and not required to adhere to the EYFS yet these children contribute to the statistics published that demonstrate developmental regression, as do those children that do not attend any early year’s settings before they attend school. It is not consistent nor a fair regulation system.

Point 3.1 of the report goes on to say If children are left behind when they are very young, they will struggle as they get older.” In an inspection at one of my settings last year the Inspector did not even look in my Under 2’s rooms – the care and development of these children was of no concern. Point 3.2 then states that “I know that some people interpret the term ‘school readiness’ as implying that children could be pressured to learn to read nd write at inappropriately young ages.” Yet in both of my most recent inspections the first of two reasons given for not being outstanding was ‘we do not perform enough formal teaching’ (this statement has been generalised from both reports). A clear contravention of Dame Tickell’s ideals.

Finally, the section headed ‘The foundations of healthy development’ clearly demonstrate the well-being of the child from the outset is paramount to positive development. This includes nutrition for example and ‘building on their experiences at home’ which would clearly involve routines for sleeping and mealtimes etc. None of this is recorded by Ofsted in their inspections. In my latest two reports there is no reference to the care we provide, to the extensive research that has gone in to the nutrition programme our children follow from weaning through to pre-school. They eat four meals with us (that have been researched to ensure maximum salt, sugar & saturated fat content & maximum nutrition including up to 9 a day fruits & vegetables) to enable optimum nutrition throughout the day, they sleep at a different time of day to other nurseries to maximise sleep needs against activity and energy requirements and we ensure physical activity within this routine to maximise nutritional consumption. However, my research has taken the children’s well-being even further by using within our programme colour psychology, music therapy, aromatherapy, crystal therapy and meditation. None of which is acknowledged by Ofsted in our reports yet is fundamental to the wellbeing of the children that allows their natural development. This exact scenario is clearly evidence by Dame Tickell in point 3.9 as being ‘imperative’. As you can imagine, providing this could never cost the same as providing a ‘pre-school session’ in a village hall!

  1. Provide a voucher system for parents to attend both pregnancy workshops, child development workshop and parent/child classes through to their first year or attendance at an early years setting.

Dame Tickell quotes in point 3.4 “Strong bonds between parents and their children, forged from the outset are critical for the development of wellbeing.” However, there are a number of factors that are causing harm to this outcome but also contributing to the increase of infant and childhood mental health.

With the severe reduction of maternity services and family dispersion parents and in particular new parents no longer have a support network in place. Financial pressures generally mean a mother is no longer giving up work at 11 weeks prior to her EDD but closer to 2 weeks prior, thus missing a crucial ‘bonding’ and stress free time in their 3rd trimester having a direct effect on both their risk of post natal depression and bonding with baby but also increasing the incidents of premature births and mental health issues in their baby.

Current SMP rules mean that most parents returning to work are doing so during a crucial developmental phase of separation anxiety contributing to stress and anxiety in both parent, baby and childcare staff.

Very few parents access any form of ‘parenting’ workshops and so have very little knowledge of their baby’s developmental needs thus contributing to the delays we are seeing when children do finally attend a childcare setting. This is exacerbated by both the parent’s use of and the trend of entertaining babies by screens and TV programmes. Numerous research shows the detrimental effect this has on a baby’s brain development and subsequent all round development.

 

Staffing

Staffing is in crisis more than ever before. Every nursery owner I speak to across the country is struggling to recruit staff in general, but in particular qualified staff. Whilst we have to deny parents a place due to no available staff thus affecting our income, many unscrupulous settings, as seen on Good Morning Britain, will not but in addition they will also not adhere to the required ratio of qualified to unqualified staff. However, the pressures of underfunding are promoting this behavior in order to survive and stay open. There are many staff that are fabulous in their job but are not qualified. Also, the pressures of the recent GCSE requirement for the Level 3 qualification has seen a drastic downturn in those applying for the course.

What the childcare sector needs is:

  1. First of all, value the staff currently employed in the sector. It is the knowledge base that is important and the ability to interact with and care for babies and young children. I have seen Level 6 staff unable to positively interact with children. It should be a requirement of the provider to ensure the knowledge base of the staff and the responsibility of the staff to ensure their own continued professional development. Staff in senior positions should of course hold a suitable qualification.
  2. Rather than insist on a ‘Nursery Teacher’ that will devalue existing sector staff and result in a further staffing crisis, create CPD courses that will enable existing staff to reach ‘professional status’
  3. I agree that minimum grades should be achieved to enter the childcare profession however, this needs to be a goal achieved in 3 – 5 years to enable the current educational achievement levels to catch up.
  4. A register of all childcare providers, including nannies and au pairs, that ensures monitoring of professionals, code of practice and continued professional development. There are an unknown number of children in the care of nannies which require no qualification as they are completed unregulated. In addition, this means there is no monitoring of their development. These children could be contributing heavily to the development regression we are seeing – along with those children with stay at home parents that I will address in the development section.

A register will also give value to staff and work towards encouraging them to achieve professional status.

 

Regulation

Ofsted – I mention the high standards that are being demanded of us and please do not think that I for one moment think that these should be lowered. However, as a profession we have gone from a system of Under Eight’s Officers who were extremely supportive whilst demanding high standards to an agency that does not seem to have a clear central standard as many nurseries are penalized for very different reasons. In one of my most recent inspections the Ofsted inspector marked us down because I insisted that all of our children should be expected to sit at the table and eat their dinner together – the inspector said “according to guidelines a child should have access to free play at all times and therefore if they wanted to get up and leave their dinner and play they should be able to” – do you agree with that? I for one think it is one of the reasons that society is heading where it is, we have no discipline, no etiquette and no respect! However, as I have demonstrated throughout this report there are many areas whereby our regulation is unfair and inconsistent. What is needed is:

  1. As previously stated, allow other settings that can demonstrate their own development programme such as our Babyopathy/Nascuropathy programmes to be exempt from the EYFS – not just Waldorf Steiner
  2. Restructure the current grading system to a fairer percentage based system to show the difference between the extremes of current grades, such as

0 – 20%           Unsatisfactory

20 – 40%         Needs Improving

40 – 80%         Good

80 – 100%       Outstanding

This percentage should be measured by a set of clear measureable questions across the EYFS/Exempt Programmes that must include the extent of care and well-being provided as that is the basic foundation on which development can only be achieved. These questions should not be open to interpretation or opinions of individual officers as the current model allows.

This would give parents a very clear understanding of the provision they are accessing but also be an incentive for settings to achieve clear goals, something they cannot achieve as they have no set measurable standards, everything is open to interpretation.

To summarise, I know I am bringing many issues that I could not possibly fit in a 30 minute meeting. However, the point of this report is not to point out failings but to highlight need for change and to offer a potential, workable alternative.

Angela J Spencer – Director

Angels at Play Nurseries
Little Angels Nurseries Ltd

HO: 1 The Dockyard, Star Street, Ware, Herts. SG12 7AN
T: 01920 486487
F: 01920 462778

M: 07912 626118

W: www.angelsatplay.co.uk