Steve Brine is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Childcare and Early Education and is the MP for Winchester.

The Prime Minister’s New Year speech was bold in its ambition for the future of our country, looking to tackle the fundamentals of growth and innovation and get Britain moving again. He proclaimed that education is the closest we have to a silver bullet for making people’s lives better. What was striking, however, was the lack of focus on those who are Britain’s future – our very youngest children.

It is well known and accepted that the early years is fundamental to our children’s future happiness, well-being, and success, and, by extension, that of the country. Why, therefore, are we as a country not addressing this? Delays to reforms and reports that will merely tinker with our early years’ system are hugely worrying given the extent to which the sector needs support and a new direction.

Liz Truss, of course, attempted this during her premiership. Yes, some of her proposals, including the scrapping of ratios, went too far and too fast. However, much was admirable in her overall vision of a system that empowers parents and prioritises the very basics of good childcare provision.

I want this government to get back to basics, starting with funding. The current funding formulae announced at the end of last year will fundamentally not help cover rising costs for nurseries in the Private, Voluntary, or Independent (PVI) sector where 85.5 per cent of funded 2-year-olds alone are cared for.

Figures from the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) show that energy costs for providers will be 3 to 6 times higher than 2021, alongside eyewatering mortgage and rent increases. In addition, from April, PVI nurseries and other childcare providers will face a 10 per cent increase in minimum statutory wages for staff. Low wages are one of the main reasons for low retention in the sector and pay must be reflective of the vital work early years educators do in order to stem the staffing crisis.

It is clear that further funding is needed, however, given that the wage bill for providers alone amounts to 76 per cent of nurseries’ operating costs. Settings cannot seriously invest in their staff when facing many financial challenges. While the extra money from last year’s review is welcome, it is not enough, and largely amounts to shuffling funds around to paper over the cracks. Nursery care and education, and the support this provides for parents, is part of this country’s infrastructure and is underfunded at our peril.

A starting point for the Government should be business rates. In 2021, the average nursery’s business rates bill was £13,250 a year, while businesses in retail, leisure and hospitality received a 75 per cent discount through the business rates relief scheme. It is not reasonable that some early years settings are being taxed with business rates and VAT that cannot be reclaimed at a higher rate than a high street restaurant. Yet we have allowed it to happen, driving many settings towards closure.

Closure of these settings endangers the development and early life skills of our children. We must start to see the early years as the very foundation of a child’s education, treating it with the same respect as formal primary education, which early years sets children up to be ready for.

All areas of education, from schools to colleges and universities get more funding per child than the early years’ sector, with many also receiving capital and catch-up funding. Not only does this miss out on supporting the very beginning of education, but it also ignores the fact that a higher ratio of staff is needed to ensure quality care and learning is delivered so that staff do not face burnout and a lack of a work/life balance in the way they currently do.

These issues are just the starting point of what is fundamentally broken about England’s childcare system. I await with great anticipation the public hearings and final report from the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into childcare and early education. However, the Government simply cannot afford to wait for Parliament to do their job for them..

Myself and many others I speak to as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Childcare & Early Education have long called for a complete review of childcare from the Department for Education, and continue to press the Minister on this even as we hear of continued delays. Arguments that reform to childcare is unaffordable pale in comparison to the crisis we will face if serious steps are not taken.

The impact of nursery closures on children will last for decades, limiting their success for their whole lives. Unless early education and childcare are funded properly, the country will continue to fall behind our OECD counterparts, creating an in-built disadvantage for our future growth ambitions. There is an economic imperative to tackle this now.

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