Yesterday I hosted the new Children, Families and Well Being Minister (Early Years) – Claire Coutinho MP who came to visit Imagination Childcare Nursery in Moredon. Early Years is such a vital area of our work, crucial to providing the building blocks for opportunity (social mobility) and for supporting working families.
The first part of the visit was an opportunity for the fantastic owner Becky Cruise to show the Minister her nursery and to meet her wonderful team. Becky’s passion and pride was clear having seen her nursery grow from when she first opened the doors in 2015.
The second part of the visit was then a roundtable with the Minister, Becky and Cllr Jo Morris (who also owns her own nursery) to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the sector. We had a very detailed discussion covering:
Funding. We are proud that as a Government we have rapidly expanded free childcare provision, with the introduction of the free 15 and 30 hour provision. However, the payments to cover this provision hasn’t always kept up with rising costs around the National Living Wage etc putting a real pressure on the viability of nurseries.
Ratios. The Government is actively looking at mirroring changes in Scotland where there is a relaxing of some of the ratios. In theory this is to help bring down costs for parents, but we have reservations. Anyone who has had to look after 2- to 3-year-old knows that they can be both a handful and quick on their feet! A lessening of the ratios could impact on the quality of provision and making it harder for the staff remaining. OFSTED. All educational settings are regularly reviewed and rated by OFSTED. Whilst an important safeguard on standards and a tool to provide parents with key information, improvements are needed. The process needs to be fairer with a more consistent overview. Currently is based on a quick 1-day snapshot every 4 to 5 years.
Business Rates. I have previously raised in Parliamentary debates the differential treatment of a nursery based in a school setting who don’t pay Business Rates and a standalone nursery which does, in one case I have seen this is the equivalent of £100 funding lost per student.
SEN Provision. We had a very detailed discussion around support for children with special education needs. The process to unlock additional support is often complex and can be slow. It is in everyone’s interests that this is sped up and it is clear greater weight could be given to the observations of nursery teams who work with the children day in, day out.
Capacity. Demand for Early Years provision is huge with many nurseries full. This is a particular challenge in a town like Swindon where we have many working parents, with wider family support not necessarily based nearby. Many of the most popular nurseries would like to expand and if we can address some of the issues highlighted provision could be rapidly expanded.
The ideas and suggestions raised by Becky and Jo were vital – first-hand experience and knowledge makes for better policy. I am proud that yet again Swindon is key to shaping future policy.