Bubble system to end

Woman wearing covid face mask

Bubble system to end

Although Covid cases are once again on the rise, the government is confident that the vaccination programme has broken the link between catching the disease and serious cases that put a burden on the NHS. Also wanting to avoid a new peak in cases over the winter flu season, it has decided to press ahead with lifting the last remaining restrictions over the next couple of months. While this decision is certainly controversial, from a practical point of view, childcare providers will want to understand what it means for them, so they can make their own decisions about how to operate in the new environment.

One major change is that the Bubble System is coming to an end in England. Currently, if a child under 18 comes into contact with a positive Covid case, they are required to self-isolate. This has caused significant disruption to both childcare providers and parents, as well as potentially harming the children’s own development. The education secretary has now announced that this system will be brought to a close from 16th August.

From that date, self-isolation will only be required if a child tests positive for the virus. A child coming into close contact with a positive case will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and advised to take a PCR test. Should that test be positive, they will be required to self-isolate, but otherwise can continue to attend their provision as normal. Importantly for Early Years providers, children under their care will only be advised to take a PCR test if a member of their household tests positive.

The government’s guidance for schools can be read here:

At the time of writing, guidance for the Early Years sector has yet to be published.

Early years commission publishes manifesto

The Early Years Commission is a cross-party group, jointly run by the centre-left Fabian Society and centre-right Centre for Social Justice. Its stated purpose is to “develop a policy agenda which is built on the widely accepted evidence about the critical importance of a child’s early years.” The intention is to use the wealth of existing research to build policies that can attract bipartisan support and become a part of the government’s agenda whoever is in power, hopefully avoiding the sector continuing to be used as a political football.

The Commission has now published its first manifesto, calling for all levels of government to come together with a goal of making the UK the best country to be born into by 2030. Its core priorities are to:

Make young children society’s top priority by delivering public service innovation locally and nationally with a commitment to lessen child poverty; 
Support parents to make their homes a nurturing environment with time away from work, financial stability to focus on their child, and the community and professional assistance they need; 
Put our young children at the heart of their community and public services with invest.

The manifesto’s analysis is wide-ranging but touches on many of the themes that have been repeatedly highlighted by those working in the early years sector, including the paucity of funding and chronically low pay. The report calls for a complete overhaul of the funding system, but also for specific funds to be made available to support training and development within the sector. The report does not detail what a new funding settlement would look like however, instead calling for a “zero-based review”. This may reflect a belief that existing funds are not being applied in the most effective way and that the answer to the sector’s financial struggles is not simply more money.

It is clear that the Commission intends its work to be a long-term project and that it is prepared to think carefully about its approach. As such, serious political attention to the early years sector is certainly welcome, especially if short term electioneering and point scoring can be kept to a minimum.

The report can be read on the Fabian Society website here: https://fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Early-Years-Commission-Cross-Party-Manifesto.pdf
And on the Centre for Social Justice website here: https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/library/early-years-manifesto

Overall Sector Numbers Decline Over Covid Year

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the childcare sector. Although the furlough scheme along with other elements of financial support meant that the majority of businesses were able to weather the crisis and re-open, data from Ofsted now suggests that this was far from universally true. Since between 1st April 2020 and 31st March 2021, over 3,000 settings have closed, of which 1,800 were childminders. This represents a decline of around 4% of the total size of the sector, and twice the closure rate seen in 2019.

While these figures are a real cause for concern, not just for struggling businesses, but for those concerned with the welfare of the children they serve, it is important that they are interpreted correctly. The childcare sector has been undergoing a long period of change in which childminder numbers in particular have been declining year on year for much of the past decade, meanwhile the trend in the non-domestic sector has been towards larger settings catering to more children at once. Tellingly, despite the closures, the number of places available has remained static. This suggests that where businesses have been forced to close, others are available to take on their children. 

None of which is to suggest that declining numbers should not be seen as a warning sign, or that childcare businesses struggling to survive should not have their needs met. Childcare is at its best when there is a wide variety of provision available and trying times can shift markets towards bland homogeneity. After-all, it does not matter if the number of places available is sufficient in principle if in practice parents cannot find local provision or if the quality of care starts to suffer. Moreover, given just how much of themselves childcare providers give to their businesses, it is critical that every setting is given a fair chance to thrive.

As the country recovers from the pandemic, change is natural and to be expected, but a lot of work will be necessary to ensure that it is for the better.
Ofsted’s report can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childcare-providers-and-inspections-as-at-31-march-2021 

Funded Places Take-up Drops
Since their introduction and particularly since the roll-out of the 30 hours entitlement, government funded provision has become the backbone of the early years sector. While sector is at constant pains to point out that the funding often falls short of what is necessary, it is nonetheless the case that the majority of regulated childcare businesses now rely on it to survive. Not only that, but funded places, particularly means-tested funding for 2-year-olds, have enabled more children than ever before to benefit from early education.

The pandemic has now introduced a lot of uncertainty into this picture. Figures released by the government suggest that registrations for funded places are at their lowest rate since 2008. 62% of eligible 2-year-olds were registered for a place in January, a decline from 69% in 2020. Similarly, registrations of 3 and 4 year olds have dropped by 5%. Accompanying this is anecdotal evidence from sector voices that the number of children attending privately paid provision has also dropped.

Occupancy rates have been slowly recovering since settings were permitted to re-open after the first lockdown last year, but the uncertainty introduced by the second wave and the delays to relinquishing the last Covid restrictions may mean some parents are delaying registration. At present, with furlough still an option for unneeded staff, most settings seem to be able to continue in operation, but it will be important that numbers have recovered by September when the scheme ends.

Ofsted’s report can be found here: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/education-provision-children-under-5/2021 

Children’s Activities Critical to Reversing Pandemic Trends

Sport England has highlighted the critical role Children’s Activities has to play as the pandemic restrictions are lifted. Earlier in the year, their statistics showed that during the lockdown, under a third of children were participating in a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day. This means that 2.3 million children now fall into the ‘least active’ category, an increase of 200,000 from last year. Not only that, but less than half of all children are getting the government’s recommended hour of exercise a day.

Much of the reason for this is attributed to the restrictions due to Covid-19. While there is little doubt amongst scientists that these were necessary, the ongoing disruption is significant, with many venues still restricting the kind of activities they can host, along with the number of children who can attend. As the restrictions are eased, it is clear that children’s activity providers will have a major role to play over the course of the summer, getting children back into the habit of healthy, active lifestyles. This is already taking place, and in fact Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England's chief executive, praised the sector for their ‘monumental effort,’ along with parents and schools, to keep children playing sport.

The lifting of restrictions such as bubbles and requirements to self-isolate have been called for by Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children's Commissioner for England, who also advocates a ‘summer of fun’, in which schools make their premises available for sport, drama, and social activities.