Nurseries, already teetering on the edge, are collapsing in the pandemic. In the poorest places, where they are already thin on the ground, more than a third are likely to close through lack of funds. An Early Years Alliance survey of 6,300 nurseries makes grim reading. Those under pressure are only surviving now on furlough pay: when that’s withdrawn they will go under, threatening not just nursery jobs but also parents’ work if they can’t find another place. Children’s life chances are already severely damaged by losing 100 lockdown days: Education Endowment Foundation research expects the attainment gap to widen by 36% during school closures.
The youngest will be most stricken if they have no nursery to return to, as levelling-up starts with them. Decades of research shows that supporting every month of a young child’s development is worth years later in school. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that good early years education lasts through life into improved earnings for disadvantaged children. But the attempt to close the social class gap for young children has stalled over recent years, as underfunded nurseries struggle with underpaid, under-trained staff.
We boast of a fictional 'cradle to grave' welfare state, but both the cradle and the last stages of life are outsourced
Heading into a looming wave of unemployment, parents will be dealt a new blow by the loss of nurseries. Many will discover for the first time one particular irony of the current system: once they fall on to benefits, their child will only be entitled to 15 free nursery hours a week. Only those in work qualify for the full 30 free hours. Children of distressed families suffering the shock of unemployment will lose the security of their full-time nursery places. Nurseries will be hit again by a halving of their incomes from children of the newly unemployed. Perversely denying children of parents on benefits – who might need most help – their full nursery hours was one of Iain Duncan Smith’s most malevolent benefit sanctions.
The prime minister’s “build, build, build” mantra may save construction from ruin, but Tony Wilson, head of the Institute for Employment Studies, tells me it will provide few of the right jobs in the right places – most are unsuited to those falling out of hospitality, admin and retail in their tens of thousands. Government investment in health, social care and nurseries would create jobs fastest, a win-win if they raise quality of care while creating a good career path for new cadres of workers. That’s a chance to attract more men into caring jobs – there is a serious lack in nurseries, and it’s a bitter truth that when men join undervalued “women’s” sectors, pay and status tend to rise for all.
Care and nurseries both need saving by taking them back into the public sector. We boast of a fictional “cradle to grave” welfare state, but both the cradle and the last stages towards the grave were long ago outsourced into a hotchpotch of disastrous provision, largely paid for by the taxpayer yet outside both the health and education system. Both have been crippled by state underfunding and private companies trying to make a profit out of crumbs. The National Day Nurseries Association says 71% of nurseries will be running at a loss until September: will they cut corners or collapse?
What a scandal that most nurseries lack a full-time qualified teacher on their staff, but that’s just not affordable on the low rates the state pays them per child. The Sutton Trust is calling for a modest £88m in transition funding, which would at least give nursery children the same pupil premium as school-age children. All too often private nurseries rely on minimum-wage school leavers, as if unqualified staff are the ones to raise the language development of children who most need skilled support. Everyone working in Sweden’s brilliant universal state-run nurseries has a degree, with child development a valued specialism.
When Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings rampaged into the department in 2010 they tore down the “Every Child Matters” signs, abolished the register that noted all children at risk and changed the department’s name from Labour’s child-friendly “Children, Schools and Families” to a stark “Department for Education”. With their Gradgrind teaching formula they ignored nurseries, letting Sure Start children’s centres go, abolishing extended schools with breakfast clubs, after-school homework and play programmes. On Wednesday the department published its new early years curriculum, which the Early Years Alliance protests tightens the screws again, with extra emphasis on maths and literacy, despite voluminous expert evidence that young nursery children need a “broad, well-rounded and holistic approach”.
Real levelling up starts right here in infancy but its visible effects wouldn’t be felt for years, unlike new roads and bridges. Rather than pushing money into the construction industry good, well-paid and well-qualified jobs can best be created by a national upgrading of nurseries and social care. Only then might we turn the “cradle to grave” welfare state from rhetoric into reality.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist