BONUS POST: An expanded early years sector could be even more underpowered
Jeremy Hunt's welcome announcement of extra childcare provision in the Budget has not been accompanied by the funding needed to deliver on it and to deal with the urgent issue of low pay
If the early years sector was a bus, then Jeremy Hunt has just announced a major expansion in the number of seats on it, but without doing anything to upgrade an engine that was already struggling.
What do I mean by this inelegant metaphor? I’m talking about the government’s failure to invest in the early years sector at a level that is sufficient to tackle a key problem – chronically low pay – while announcing a major expansion of free early years provision.
A recent article by academics from the University of Manchester forcefully made the point about how much pay is hurting recruitment and retention in the sector:
Many [early years] providers have told us that they cannot compete for staff with other essential services such as schools and the NHS, where starting salaries, career progression and pensions are often better. Since COVID-19, providers also struggle to compete with supermarkets, many of whom pay at least the real living wage and offer part-time, flexible work that has fewer physical and emotional demands. Our research also indicates that some potential early years educators estimate that they would be financially better off staying on Universal Credit.
We know that low pay undermines quality, by making it harder to attract properly qualified staff, as well as availability; and lower quality provision is less effective at tackling inequality by reducing attainment gaps for disadvantaged children. And we know, thanks to quick analysis of this week’s budget by the Early Years Alliance and the Women’s Budget Group, that the government’s increased funding for the 30 free hours is not enough to enable the sector to increase wages to where they need to be. According to Politico, Treasury sources have confirmed that, while funding to nurseries will increase from around £6 to £8 per hour for two-year-olds, the increase for three- and four-year-olds is much smaller (from £5.29 to £5.50). The WBG calculates that the funding shortfall is £5.2 billion – and that’s just to pay workers the national living wage.
What does the public think about this? Is there a tension between the understandable focus of parents on affordability and the need to tackle poverty wages in the sector? To find out, we commissioned some polling from Opinium earlier this month on public attitudes to pay in the early years sector, and we’ve just published the results.
What we found was the opposite of a zero-sum mindset. Instead we saw solidarity, and a widespread recognition that paying people a decent wage is in everyone’s best interests. 79% of Britons think that wages in the early years sector are too low, and only 10% disagree. This view unites parents, grandparents and non-parents, men and women, and voters across party lines (including 79% of Tory voters as well as 87% of Labour voters). Interestingly, an even higher proportion of parents struggling with childcare costs - 85% - agree that wages in the sector are too low.
We also found that people don’t realise how low wages are for people working in the early years sector, overestimating hourly pay by an average of 47% (£10.90 compared to £7.42). And people were concerned about sustainability, quality and equality, as well as about the affordability, availability and flexibility of early years provision.
Three quarters of respondents agreed that we should value early years workers as much as other staff in the education sector, and that we should pay them enough to get by, while there was strong majority recognition that increasing wages was crucial for giving children the best quality education and care.
Jeremy Hunt’s budget announced some welcome and overdue investment in the early years. But there’s resounding public support for going further than the Chancellor went on Wednesday, and investing in the engine as well as the seats by providing the funding needed to pay early years workers what they – and we – deserve.
This article was first published at Children & Young People Now
I’d be very grateful for your feedback on our report on attitudes to pay in the early years sector, Fair Pay for Critical Days. Was the report interesting or useful? Which sections worked well, which less so? Was there anything missing that we should include next time? What topics should we look at for future polls and reports? You can share your thoughts on our online form - it will only take a couple of minutes (or you can reply to this email if you prefer). Thank you!