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Covid-19: Pre-school Sector

Volume 803: debated on Monday 8 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sustainability of the pre-school sector; and what steps they are planning to take to support that sector.

My Lords, the preschool sector plays a vital role in educating our youngest children. As with all parts of society, the pandemic has greatly affected the sector, limiting the number of children able to attend. Since 1 June, we have asked the sector to welcome back all children. We are working with local authorities and the sector to monitor the impact of the pandemic. Government will continue to provide funding, guidance and support for the sector.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but she is surely aware that the sector feels that it has been appallingly let down financially by the Government in terms of the furlough arrangements and much else, so much so that a quarter of providers may not be operating in a year’s time and many more will operate at a loss in the next six months. Will she and her ministerial colleagues meet the Early Years Alliance specifically to discuss the need for transitional funding to ensure that the childcare sector survives the pandemic period at least?

My Lords, the Minister for this area has been in close contact with the Early Years Alliance and other sector groups in relation to the support available. We plan to pay the early years entitlements regardless of the uptake of that, which is worth £3.6 billion this year, and have issued specific guidance on how the sector can access the job retention scheme and business interruption loans.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. A large amount of private provision has indeed closed during the pandemic. Maintained nursery schools have taken in additional children and become hubs for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The 2019 supplementary funding of £60 million was welcome, but it leaves maintained nursery schools with real-terms cash equivalent only to that of 2015. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that maintained nursery schools are adequately funded both now and in future?

My Lords, the Government recognise the commitment of the 391 remaining maintained nursery schools, which often operate in areas of disadvantage. The noble Baroness is right that £60 million of funding is still received by that sector regardless of the uptake. In addition to that, there is a £300 per child per year early years pupil premium. We remain committed to the maintained nursery sector.

My Lords, given the reduced risk of coronavirus transmission and the health and well-being benefits of outdoor education—everything from understanding of risk to resilience—will the Government encourage and support preschool education to shift towards outdoor models, either partially or fully? Given that lots of parents might struggle to afford the appropriate clothing, will the Government assist in ensuring that it is available?

My Lords, the Government’s guidance on the reopening of schools specifically refers to the fact that using outdoor space, where possible and depending on the weather, is to be encouraged. We leave equipping children for the proper use of outdoor space to schools.

My Lords, one of my granddaughters, Carla, attended her nursery, Little Bicks in Mill Hill, this morning for the first time in three months. I pay tribute to the staff and management who have provided online activities throughout—my thanks especially for the very enjoyable weekly Zoom singalong with grandparents. Like so many, these important businesses have it very tough. Can my noble friend confirm that private childcare settings are eligible for a business rate holiday of one year, giving them much-needed support at this time?

My Lords, I can confirm that if you are an early years foundation stage provider registered with Ofsted and qualify for the small business rate relief or, in appropriate circumstances, the rural rate relief, that enables you to access the £10,000 small business grant. Since last month we have been obtaining up-to-date statistics from local authorities to make sure that we have appropriate information about the resilience of this sector.

My Lords, there are disturbing reports of vulnerable small children going missing or being open to abuse during lockdown. Many nurseries and childminders, who are already low paid, as we have heard, will have had to close. What importance do the Government attach to ensuring that there are places of safety for vulnerable preschool children in these times of pandemic?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. Throughout this period, these settings have been open for vulnerable children. The presumption has been that, subject to health risks, those who have been in contact with a social worker should be attending. We have also started, as of last month, the “See, Hear, Respond” service with a £7 million grant to a coalition of charities for vulnerable children, led by Barnardo’s. We are particularly concerned about the safeguarding issues for young children that have arisen as a result of lockdown.

My Lords, the preschool sector is important. Will the Government therefore continue with test, track and—just as vital—treat? Why has “treat” been dropped for “isolate”?

My Lords, in relation to “test, track and trace” in this sector, all staff, children and their households are entitled to a test if they exhibit symptoms. As of the end of last month, that includes those aged under five. We realise that this is an essential part of being able to safely reopen schools.

Does the Minister agree that as crucial as supporting the preschool sector at this stage is investment in under-fives provision, as severe lifelong impacts can result from deprivation of care, stimulation and learning? Evidence shows that the literacy skills gap starts at the age of five. This deficit takes years to recover from and impacts on social mobility.

The noble Baroness is correct that it is vital we ensure that disadvantaged children get the best start at this stage in early years so that they can fully access the curriculum when they enter mainstream school. We have invested £60 million over the last two years in specific initiatives to help the language and literacy development of young children, exemplified by the department’s Hungry Little Minds campaign, which saw over 180,000 new users at the start of lockdown.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of reports last week of a survey carried out with the National Day Nurseries Association showing the stark reality of how Covid-19 will continue to impact on nurseries across England, even as they start to open their doors to more children. Three-quarters of nurseries have said that they expect to operate at a loss over the next three months. Without significant financial support, many will be unable to survive. Faced with the reality that millions of childcare places could be lost in this crisis, the National Day Nurseries Association has called on the Government to act now by introducing a recovery and transformation fund to help providers survive in this extremely challenging period. Labour supports that call. Does the Minister?

My Lords, as I have outlined, the £3 billion of planned entitlements will be paid this year. The sector has been able to access a number of the schemes outlined by the Chancellor to support small businesses, which is what this sector mainly comprises. We continue to monitor the sustainability of the sector on the basis of data from local authorities.

I hear what the Minister says about the support given to the childcare sector, but, following on from the points of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, research has shown that up to 10,000 childcare providers will have folded or gone out of business by the time this pandemic is over. What plans do the Government have to ensure that that provision is not completely lost?

My Lords, 35% of providers were open just before the half-term holiday. As I say, we are monitoring the sector and have provided the entitlements that I have outlined. We will work with sector groups to ensure the sustainability of the sector, which we know is vital for childhood development and for parents who need to work.

My Lords, research shows that high-quality birth-to-age-five programmes for disadvantaged children yield a 13% return on investment per child per annum, through better education, economic, health and social outcomes. Does the Minister agree that investing in early childhood education is a cost-effective strategy for promoting economic growth? If so, will she press this point with Treasury colleagues?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that this is a great investment. At the end of last year, we announced an increase in the hourly rate that the sector receives. I am pleased to say that 96% of these providers are “good” and “outstanding”, up from 74% a few years ago, and that the quality of provision in areas of disadvantage is improving.