Vicky Ford MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Children and Families)
I am writing about last Thursday’s Government announcement that it is changing the guidance relating to the annual census of Early Years PVI providers. As you know, local authorities use the census data to return figures to central Government for how many pupils are attending nursery provision and this data is used to calculate Early Years entitlement.
The change to the guidance means that some children who are temporarily not receiving their entitlement during census week cannot be counted. It actively penalises providers that have opted to close, other than to children who are vulnerable or those of critical workers, because of coronavirus transmission rates (like Brighton and Hove, Liverpool, Newcastle, Lewisham, Hounslow, Ealing, Haringey, Newcastle, Brent, Salford). The decision to close local nursery provision in all these areas has been taken to comply with statutory obligations to ensure safe early education and childcare.
The Government is putting local authorities in the position of having to choose between upholding public health guidance and losing millions in funding for Early Years entitlement, or opening nursery provision and exposing staff, children and their families to risk of infection from Covid 19. For those providers that have chosen to close and have furloughed staff, re-opening at such short notice to be eligible for their full Early Years entitlement may not be practically or financially viable. It is dangerous and reckless for the Government to put local authorities and Early Years providers in this position. Moreover, the logic of holding a census in the midst of a pandemic does not stand up, especially when Government public health messaging is clear – people should stay at home in all but exceptional circumstances or if they cannot work from home. Independent Sage have advised that nurseries and other Early Years settings should be closed at present.
During the first lockdown, Government guidance stipulated that local authorities could continue to pay Early Years providers for free entitlements for two, three and four year olds, based on the number of eligible children that were registered ‘on roll’ at the setting, rather than those who were attending. A similar arrangement remained in place for the Autumn term.
The current provision for local authorities to request a capped top-up to their January census, if attendance increases during the spring term, is not a sustainable solution. Crucially, it fails to give local authorities the certainty they need to plan ahead for Early Years spending, when it is unclear how long providers may need to remain closed or the national lockdown will last. The Government should trust local authorities to return data which is an honest and accurate reflection of local need, rather than using the pandemic as an excuse to impose damaging cuts to local authority Early Years grants.
To wilfully single out Early Years PVI providers in areas where local authorities are simply doing what local rates demand to reduce transmission and keep staff and children safe is disgraceful. It politicises Early Years funding and holds nursery providers, staff and young children to ransom. Following the free school meals debacle, this marks a new low in the Government’s cruel and callous treatment of our young people. I therefore urgently call on you to guarantee that funding entitlement going forward will be fairly and fully adjusted so that children in Brighton Pavilion and elsewhere are not disadvantaged by the census guidance.