The Future of Nursery Provision by Dr Jackie Musgrave

We live in a fast-changing world, when I spoke at the All Party Parliamentary Group for a Fit and Healthy Childhood only 5 weeks ago, concerns were emerging about the impact of rising prices and how this was going to affect low income families. Only 6 weeks later, we are hearing news reports about workers in low pay, but working in key jobs, are unable to go to work because of their inability to pay for petrol to do so. As a result of the current economic crisis, the situation relating to the future of nursery provision is looking even bleaker.

So, what has this got to do with the future of nursery provision? Of course the answer is because our Early Childhood education and Care (ECEC) workforce are bearing the brunt of a combination of years of policy neglect and a disregard for their contribution to society. This neglect and disregard which are illustrated by a perception of low status and the reality of ridiculously low pay.

The invitation to speak at the APPG meeting was a welcome one, because it was an opportunity to yet again, take the opportunity of pointing out that the Early Childhood Education and Care workforce are well equipped and are already doing a great deal that helps to promote good health for babies and children. And I am always keen to highlight to them that they are missing a trick by not addressing the current situation in relation to nursery provision by looking after the workforce. Preparation for the presentation was challenging because I was given 5-7 minutes to give some key points, therefore, I am very aware that there are omissions in the following account.

Following the invitation to speak on the subject of ‘the future of nursery provision’ I decided to give some facts about the current situation in relation to the workforce and pay and conditions. What I found won’t be news to many of us working in or closely connected with the provision of ECEC in the UK. I had turned to twitter to find out what the main issues were and the main one related to staffing. I spoke to a colleague working in a chain of nurseries as part of the research for the presentation, she described the difficulties she was experiencing in relation to the recruitment and retention of staff. This situation is partly because of a reduction in students studying ECEC courses, which is fuelled by the poor pay and status. She summed up the current situation by saying “I can’t see a light at the end of this very long tunnel”

This view is reflective of the findings from a Department for Education survey which was published in December 2021. Private, voluntary and other providers, including childminders were surveyed and it was reported that in relation to pay, almost a fifth (18%) of group-based provider staff aged 23 and over received less than the National Living Wage (NLW = £8.91p per hour in April 2021). It was interesting to see that staff pay is the biggest outgoing and accounts for 74% of costs. In some cases, there was a reliance on agency staff to make up the shortfall in staffing, which is causing strain on already stretched budgets.

As well as pay, I was told via twitter and via other conversations that the cost of running nurseries is rocketing, and the current funding model is not workable. The DfE survey, published last December, stated that the situation at that point had resulted in the closure of 4,000 early years providers over a 2-year period; and this figure is likely to have increased during the intervening time.

The current situation in relation to nursery provision is not sustainable, and I was determined to drive home the point that saving nurseries and ensuring that babies and pre-school children have access to high quality ECEC is critical is an imperative.

To illustrate why this is important, I drew on the number of children who are predicated to be living in poverty, and out of 14.49 m children under the age of 18 in the UK, 4.3 million children living in poverty. Of the 14.49 m children, 3.78 m children are aged 0-4 years. Policy makers and politicians have been very focussed on health issues related to childhood obesity for years. It has recently dawned on them that not only do children have mental health difficulties, but there is an urgent need to do seriously address the issue. To illustrate this point:

Rates of probable mental disorders have increased since 2017; in 6 to 16 year olds from one one in nine (11.6%) to one in six (17.4%), and in 17 to 19 year olds from one in ten (10.1%) to one in six (17.4%). Rates in both age groups remained similar between 2020 and 2021. (NHS Digital, 2021)

And of course, research and reports have emerged that illustrate the impact of the pandemic restrictions on the health of many babies and children. The biggest negative impact being on children with additional needs, those who speak English as an additional language and those living in poverty those whose parents were not engaging previously. (OFSTED November 2020)

In the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health ‘State of Children’s Health’ report, they state that ‘living in poverty is the strongest determinant of child health’ (RCPCH 2017 p 9). Therefore, we can see that the health problems that were already identified as being of concern 5 years ago, such as increasing levels of childhood obesity and poor mental health have been made worse by the pandemic restrictions. Very simplistically, this situation can be attributed to a combination of babies and children not having access to ECEC and the increasing levels of poverty.

So, what is the relevance of this to ECEC and the workforce? I explained that in England, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE 2021) the statutory framework for babies and children, states that ‘providers must promote the good health, including the oral health, of children attending the setting’ (p 31). Overall, within the EYFS there are more than 30 aims and principles that relate to how the ECEC workforce have a statutory requirement to support and promote the physical and mental health of babies and children. Alongside the knowledge and experience of the workforce, the underlying principle of working with parents as well as collaborative and inter-disciplinary working, It’s time that policy makers realised that they are missing a trick. The ECEC workforce are well positioned to improve the health of babies and children simply by meeting the aims of the EYFS, a point that is illustrated in a small piece of research I carried out (Musgrave and Payler 2021).

However, this can only be achieved if the policy makers give the workforce the pay and status that they deserve.

I concluded the presentation by making two main recommendations. Firstly, there is a need to recognise that Early Childhood Education and Care is a profession, in a similar way to those that exist for other professions such as nursing and teaching. Integral to a profession is the need for graduate leadership to be a legal requirement, it is estimated that 38% of managers are graduates. To be part of the profession, practitioners would need to have nationally recognised qualifications, on qualification, they would be placed on a professional register. And critically, the issue of pay and status needs to be addressed, it is a scandal that the people who are caring for our precious children aren’t receiving a proper wage. Of course, the cost of these recommendations is huge, but if children’s health and wellbeing is neglected, the whole of society is going to pay an even higher price in the future.

Taking up the opportunity to advocate for nurseries, the workforce, families and of course, our babies and children is a scary prospect, not least because not everybody will agree with the views that are expressed. However, if we all take up such opportunities and at least spread the word that our workforce deserves better, hopefully our collective voice may start being heard. We may get policy makers and those who are in position of influence to realise that ECEC can play a huge role in providing an environment where we can help babies and children to be fit, healthy and happy.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on a fit and Healthy Childhood -for more information and useful resources, please take a look at the website 

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