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Early Education calls for clarity on safety and a funding U-turn

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Wednesday, 20 January, 2021

We have today (8 January) written as follows the the Early Years Minister, Vicky Ford:

Safe opening of the early years sector under the 3rd lockdown

I write on behalf of Early Education’s members to ask you to take urgent action on the following:
Staff safety and wellbeing is our members’ top concern in relation to remaining open for all children.  The strong messages under lockdown telling everyone to stay at home sit in stark contrast with the messages to the early years sector to remain open, leading parents to opt to keep their children and home and creating huge anxiety for staff. We welcome the statement in the guidance that DfE “understand that it may not be possible for all settings to be open at this time.”  However, that is not reflected in the messaging that all settings should remain open, nor in the decision to fund on the basis of attendance.  School and setting leaders feel national policy is pushing them one way, while their risk assessments are pushing them in another, and they are ultimately being left carrying the can for life and death decisions.  If ministers wish the sector to remain open to all children, they urgently need to ensure staff and parents receive clear and unambiguous evidence that it is safe to do so. 

Our maintained nursery school members emphasise that there is no rationale for requiring them to remain open to all children when primary schools are not.  Many maintained nursery schools are as large as some primaries.  Some have children of Reception age (and even Y1).  Some, because of the nature of their buildings, are working with bubbles of children and staff which are larger than a typical primary school class – even double the size.  But above all, they challenge why you are requiring them to stay fully open without guaranteed funding, while all other schools continue to receive funding for statutory age pupils. 

We urge that improved messaging about safety should also be supported by urgent action to make regular mass testing available to early years practitioners, and to make the case for early years practitioners to be prioritised for vaccination.

Finally, the decision to revert to funding the early education entitlements on the basis of attendance from this month must also be urgently reversed.  In some areas, most parents are opting to keep their children at home due to safety concerns, so numbers attending do not remotely match those of numbers on roll.  Many of our members are not able to open to all children due to staff absences where staff are ill, self-isolating or clinically extremely vulnerable, or due to risk assessments that they cannot safely open to all children.  In such cases they are continuing to provide support for home learning for those children not able to attend, so it is not the case that they are not providing education for those children, and it would be unjust not to fund the setting for continuing to support children at home, as well as those in the setting.  Even if all children on roll were fully funded, in most cases this would reflect a fall compared to their usual numbers as many eligible January starters’ parents will have held back on taking up a place.  This is putting pressure on already overstretched budgets.  Without urgent confirmation of full funding of early entitlement places, our members will not be able to remain open for all children.  The amendments to the CJRS scheme are welcome, but not sufficient – and they will need to be extremely well publicised, especially to the maintained sector where there is a strong perception that schools are not eligible to use the scheme.  Funding for the sector is already on a knife-edge, with huge loss of income over the past nine months and additional costs which have not been covered by government support. The decision to change the funding model was taken when it appeared likely that occupancy would be approaching normal levels this term.  It is now clear that will not be the case.

We are hearing a varied response from local authorities who are clearly trying to balance their understanding of these challenges with the government guidance on funding and opening.  We urgently need a clear national policy so that settings and schools are not dependent on their local authority’s sympathy, but have a consistent expectation of support and funding.  We know that settings and schools want to do their best for children, and they need your support to allow them to do so.

On 18 January, we wrote again to the minister, as follows:

Safe opening of the early years sector under the 3rd lockdown

I still await a reply to my letter of 10 days ago, but given the fast-changing nature of the situation, I am writing again on the urgent issue of this Thursday’s census and how the data will be used to drive funding, and therefore affect the future viability of settings.

The DfE has issued guidance intended to provide greater clarity.  However, clarification is needed as to how to interpret two potentially contradictory statements:

  • “Open providers must ensure that they are able to meet statutory requirements to ensure safe and high-quality early education and childcare, in line with the Early Years Foundation Stage (taking into account the disapplications and modifications in place) and COVID systems of control.”
  • “Where the provider chooses not to offer the entitlements – i.e. to close, or only offer a limited provision to children of key workers - then then they should not make a return for a child who is not being offered a place.

Where our members have reluctantly decided to restrict access to CWV children, they are not wilfully “choosing” to do so - they are complying with their statutory duty to provide a safe environment for staff and children.  One headteacher reported that her governors were concerned that they could face prosecution for corporate manslaughter if a decision to maintain full opening led to the death of a staff member from Coronavirus.  Another was acting in the context of half their staff already having had Covid, and one having died.  Their decisions are based on local infection rates, staffing issues, building layouts and size of groups that they can safely operate in those circumstances.  They have not been given any funding to modify premises to enhance safety although many have done so from their own budgets.  Where children are at home, for whatever reason, they are supporting home learning and while that cannot replicate what would happen in the setting, it still requires dedicated staff time to provide resources, including live online support and individual contact with parents.

In these circumstances, can you confirm that we may we advise members that where they are forced to temporarily close to some or all children for health and safety, that this can be counted as a temporary closure which does not affect a child’s access to their nursery place once the health and safety issues have been resolved?  In other words that all enrolled children may be reported to the census in this situation?

Many maintained nursery schools are as large as some primaries.  Some have children of Reception age (and even Y1).  Some, because of the nature of their buildings, are working with bubbles of children and staff which are larger than a typical primary school class – even double the size.  It is not at all clear that this has been taken into account in government decisions to keep early years provision open while restricting schools to CWV children only, but schools must themselves take these factors into account when making their risk assessments.
This question highlighted above requires an urgent answer if early years providers are to remain open to as many children as possible, not only on the census date but for the rest of the year. However, we urge you to do more to ensure the ongoing viability of early years provision.

We note the provision in the funding guidance for local authorities to be able to top up their funding allocations if attendance in the census is below 85% but subsequently rises, but would question why this 85% ceiling is applied rather than funding to 100%?  If enrolments are currently at 85% - quite likely due to the normal level of new January enrolments not taking place – this already represents, for some settings, the difference between breaking even and going under.  If providers potentially increase enrolments later in the term or year as parental confidence improves, but cannot then secure the funding, this will have a catastrophic effect on their ability to deliver those places and in some cases on the viability of the whole setting.

We would reiterate that circumstances have changed totally from last month when the decision was made to revert to enrolment-based funding, At that point, there was a nominal case to be made that occupancy would be approaching normal levels this term.  It is now clear that enrolments – and attendance – have been massively impacted by the third lockdown.  Providers are suffering the double whammy of cuts in parent fee income and DSG funding, while facing significant extra costs.  We call on you to revert to funding early years settings this term at pre-pandemic levels. 

Doing so will mitigate, though not eliminate, the financial challenges the early years sector is facing.  For the ongoing financial viability of the sector, further support is badly needed, as well as a longer term plan for ensuring fairer funding, and we urge you to commit to a wider review of early years funding as a matter of urgency.