Alliance calls for urgent clarity on planned early years census changes

The Early Years Alliance has called on the Department for Education to provide urgent clarity on planned changes to early years census guidance, due to be issued to local authorities, as concerns over the impact of falling demand for childcare places continues to grow.

Speaking during the Westminster Hall debate on the impact of Covid-19 on early years settings, children and families minister Vicky Ford said:

"We currently do intend to go ahead with this year’s census next week. However, I recognise the particular challenge that the sector faces in recording an accurate picture of expected uptake, because of the impact of Covid on attendance and the operation of settings.

"To support local authorities, we will very shortly – very, very shortly – be issuing Q&As to help them interpret existing published census guidance so that census data reflects expected attendance, and doesn’t exclude what is considered to be a temporary absence or closure. This makes sure that children at open providers are counted when they are temporarily not in attendance and that is important for the providers.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson and children and families minister Vicky Ford, Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said:

"I noted from the debate that new guidance on census data is to be issued to local authorities to ensure that this data reflects ‘expected attendance’ and ‘doesn’t exclude what is considered to be a temporary absence or closure'. It is absolutely imperative that more information is provided to this sector on what this means in practice as a matter of urgency – particularly, the definition of ‘temporary’ in this context – alongside clarity on how the support provided by such an approach compares to simply funding the sector at pre-pandemic levels, as has been widely called for. 

"It is also vital that any guidance issued is made as a clear and compulsory directive to local authorities, and not open to interpretation or optional adherence."

Neil also urged the minister to "ensure that those providers who rely predominantly on private income are not forgotten" stating: "While I know that settings can now access furlough funding for loss of both private and public income, existing guidance on this remains unclear and of course, the Job Retention Scheme only covers staff costs, and not other running costs that providers continue to face. For self-employed childminders, details of the fourth Self-employed Income Support Scheme have yet to be published and those who are newly-established businesses have not received any support from this scheme to date in any case. These gaps in support must be filled." 

He added: "Early years providers provide a vital service, and it has been positive to see this publicly recognised by the government on so many occasions over recent days. This rhetoric must now be matched by action, with all providers offered financial protection from the impact of the pandemic as far as is possible."