New funding measures on early education and childcare announced in the Spring Budget, 2023
Professor Dame Cathy Nutbrown comments on the 2023 Spring Budget announcement and it's impact on early education and childcare.
New funding measures for early education and childcare were announced in the Spring Budget of 15th March. Funding will be phased between 2024-2028, to include 15 hours per week for parents of 2-year-olds (from April 2024) and for parents with children aged 9 months to 3 years (from September 2024) rising to 30 hours per week from September 2025. There are restrictions on new entitlements in terms of parent income and employment, leaving some parents and settings still struggling to balance their budgets.
Additional public funding to ease the pressure on family budgets - and make providers more viable - will always be welcomed, but what is proposed is insufficient and unlikely to resolve the ongoing crisis in early childhood education and care provision.
Changing the ratios for 2-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5
The stated change to the staff-child ratios for 2-year-olds will allow providers, if they wish, to employ fewer adults to work with these young children despite a government consultation confirming overwhelming opposition to this move. The potential that fewer adults could be required, can mean reduced individual time that early childhood educators spend with two-year-olds, whilst being responsible for more children in their setting.
At two, children need close attention to support developing attachments with others, individual time to focus on specific needs and interests, and ongoing attention to their multiple needs to support all aspects of their development, including outdoor play and conversation and story-making which supports essential language development. The most essential resource in early years settings is the professionals who work with them, be that a home setting with a childminder, or a group setting.
Changing adult-child ratios can rob young, vulnerable children of the quality adult time they need and must be resisted. To reduce staffing costs by giving poorly paid staff - who already work long hours - more children to work with, is to require those staff and children to pay the price of the measure announced in the Mach 2023 budget. Cutting costs for parents by cutting the quality of what is offered to their two-year-olds, and adding to the stress for early years practitioners, is morally wrong and counterproductive. Easing the cost of early years provision for parents by adding pressure to early years educators and reducing quality for the youngest, children is not the solution. A similar proposal was put forward about 10 years ago, in a bid to address the crisis in the early years workforce. It was withdrawn after strong opposition.
Insufficient investment for change
The additional £204m announced for this year is not sufficient to address existing funding concerns across the sector. This means providers of early childhood education and care for children under five years are still likely to struggle with unsustainable budgets. Many Maintained Nursery Schools, some established around 100 years ago, are closing, and Children’s Centre budgets have been so drastically cut since 2010 (reduced by 60% by 2020) that they are can longer able to provide all the services they were set up to provide for disadvantaged children and their families (Sylva and Curtis, 2023). Successive Conservative governments have presided over cuts to public services whilst encouraging private provision (Smith et al. 2018) this means that more provision for young children have become businesses which expect to make a profit. This is seen in the measure in the Spring 2023 budget to attract more childminders into the system whereby childminders who register with Ofsted will receive a start-up grant of £600, yet those registering with a childminder agency receive £1200.
Insufficient investment in the workforce
As the charity Early Education identifies in its budget analysis, whilst there is a bonus for new childminders, the wider workforce seems to have been ignored. The planned expansion of provision announced in the Spring budget will require an enhanced early years workforce, who are skilled to deliver the increased number of places for babies and young children. It will require well informed, confident leaders, able to take forward an equality agenda and lead practice which is known to make a positive difference to young children and their life chances. The initial training and continuing professional development of whole of the early years workforce must be prioritised, as must their recruitment and retention.
Additional public funding to ease the pressure on family budgets will always be welcomed, but what is proposed is insufficient and unlikely to resolve the ongoing crisis in early childhood education and care. It is time to stop trimming away quality adult time from the youngest children; it’s time too, to recognise the important role those who work with young children play in their learning and development. Quality provision for all young children requires effective and sustained investment. Looking to the future, Nutbrown and Merrick (2023: 161) state:
The challenges in the ECEC system are neither small nor easy to solve and will only be addressed by an ambitious long-term plan. A consistently high-quality system needs a stable, well-qualified workforce, which requires better status, pay and conditions. Increasing investment in the workforce while reducing costs for parents, requires governments to invest more, and more intelligently. Return on investment needs to be measured in long-term social impact, not in children’s test scores. Such a strategy should not only be based on economic returns, but also on the rights of children and families – and should exemplify the way that we value childhood and children.
Cathy is a Professor in the School of Education and a member of the Early Childhood Education Research Cluster. She is presently Honorary President of Early Education.
Nutbrown C. and Merrick, B. (2023) ‘An agenda for the future of early childhood education’.
In C. Nutbrown. Early Childhood Education: Current realities and future priorities. London: Sage
Smith, G., Sylva, K., Smith, T., Sammons, P. and Omonigho, A. (2018) Stop Start: Survival,
Decline or Closure – Children’s centres in England. London: The Sutton Trust. https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/StopStart-FINAL.pdf [Accessed March 2023]
Sylva, K. and Curtis, L., (2023) ‘Combatting the effects of poverty on the outcomes of young children and their families: The role of Children’s Centres’. In C. Nutbrown. Early Childhood Education: Current realities and future priorities. London: Sage
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