Has COVID presented the opportunity to change perceptions of the early-years sector

Girl with crayons

At the beginning of the discussion, June wondered why the ‘Cinderella’ sector continues to be undervalued and underfunded in the UK, unlike in other parts of the world. Homing in on politicians and the government, Neil responded that whilst there appears to be quite a bit of rhetoric flying about in the current COVID-dominated climate, talk is cheap and the reality is something completely different.

“Just a few weeks ago, I was sat at home in the evening and got a message saying the Catch-Up programme was about to be launched,” he said. “There were statements from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education, thanking a whole array of people in the education system, including early years. It talked about this “pot” and allocated out in this one area £700 million. That was at 7pm. Then about an hour and a half later, I received another press release saying ‘sorry, that was wrong’ and it removed early years from the pot of money and reduced it to £650m. Yet still the statements remained about our importance and how we had played our part from day one.

“For me that summed up the reality versus the rhetoric. I don’t see a lot coming our way.”

Liz gave another example, saying that schools and colleges were given access to additional home testing kits, while early-years settings were not. “There is a repeated almost forgetfulness when it comes to practical help as well as funding,” she said. “That’s the challenge that we’re facing.”

Neil said the sector is still one of the lowest payers, singled out year after year by the Low Pay Commission, and this has led to people in power undervaluing it. “I do think that most people with a brain would recognise that there is value in the education of young children; the social return on human capital investment is beyond question.”

Liz pointed to the “short-termism of our governments” as something that is counter-productive to changing perspectives. “They think in terms of five years,” she explained, adding that as far as early years is concerned, it is very hard to show and measure things in the way governments like to do in that squeezed timeframe.

June pondered what the sector needs to do differently within these parameters in order to get a different and more effective response. “The logic of the benefits of early education – particularly for children from more disadvantaged and challenging backgrounds – has been proven over and over again, from a social, economic and moral perspective. So what should we be thinking about?” she asked.

Neil believes that to a degree the sector itself is at fault. “When you talk to people about why they have come into this sector, rarely do they use words like ‘to increase my net worth’. They use words like ‘love’, ‘care’ and ‘I want to give back’ and I think they will continue to be used unless we take a firm stand,” he said. “I will never roll over and accept that we can leave things the way they are and just let things be done to us.”

The sector knows how to deliver really good quality care, it knows the value of children’s centres and it understands the value of partnerships with parents, said Liz. “We know these things work but somehow we never seem to move to a place where they are seen as a fundamental part of a child’s early educational and developmental journey. It’s an endless frustration that schools are not seen as the second part of that and I think there’s a very big job for us still to do to make parents aware of that. Childcare gets thought of as something that gets you to work and your child’s education doesn’t start “properly” ‘til later. We all have the opportunity to talk to different parts of society to help them better understand why early education is important and we can start by talking to the parents on the doorsteps of our settings every day.”

The national media generally compounds the general misunderstanding of the early-years sector because it is “run by people who don’t understand what we do,” June said. “But COVID-19 raised the awareness that childcare is an important part of the national infrastructure. It also brought home to parents forced into home-schooling that there is a lot more to the early-years sector than they may have thought. “Parents realised that, no matter how young their children were, friendships really mattered to them. They also began to understand the networks that we have built as settings and the relationships and coping mechanisms that they provide to the parents,” she said. “There is maybe a bigger opportunity now to have a deeper conversation.”


Child playing

Home schooling also drilled it home to some that their young children were being educated as well as cared for by their early-years providers. And within the industry, fear of the “schoolification” of early years has lessened, said Liz. “Teaching isn’t a dirty word anymore and some organisations have recognised it now as it’s own thing, but we still have official governmental barriers and boundaries that stop us. We’re in a place now where saying that we’re teaching in the early years isn’t a bad thing to do and I hope that the internal struggles we’ve had are a thing of the past. A lot comes with the word ‘teacher’ and it’s about giving people a sense of credibility and a realisation that they have the confidence and experience to go with it.”

The industry must capitalise on this shift in perception post-COVID, said Neil. “When it comes to government, this is about a back-to-work agenda. They completely miss the wider picture. It’s not just about getting parents back into work, but I’m not sure that when politicians are up against it and the economy is struggling, they look beyond the fiscal side of things. Government may not want to accept the early years as educators because then you might just have to pay the going rate. So the big challenge we’ve got is to stop just talking about care or child minding. That isn’t sufficient – this is not about ensuring that a child is kept safe; if you want them to develop you have to do considerably more. We are early-years teachers and the government need to see this as education, welfare and social development, much more than an economic argument.”